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Who Was Jesus?

This is a continuation of a soon-to-be-compiled longer post for broader consumption on the New Testament.  Now that I have described what the NT is, how it is structured and organized, and how it has come down to us, I get to one of the key issues: what does the New Testament tell us about the historical figure of Jesus himself?

 

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There can be no doubt that Jesus of Nazareth has been the most influential person in the history of the world.   The church founded on his name shaped the history of Western Civilization, and over two billion people worship him today.  And yet, because of the nature of our sources, it is surprisingly difficult to know what he actually said and did.

Jesus is thought to have died around 30 CE.   He is not referred to in any Greek or Roman sources of the first century, and only briefly in our major Jewish source of the period, the historian Josephus.  The earliest Christian references are from the New Testament, but most of the twenty-seven books say nothing about his words and deeds.

The four Gospels are by far our most important sources and these certainly do contain significant historical information.  But they are also theological reflections on the meaning of his life and death, less concerned to report bare facts than to reflect on their meaning.  Historians work diligently to get behind these reflections to determine what Jesus actually said, did, and experienced.

It is clear that Jesus was …

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Jesus and Sexual Immorality

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    pianoman  November 29, 2019

    Dr. Ehrman, I recently bought your book, “Lost Scriptures” and just started reading it. Are there any historical truths about Jesus in them we can believe besides the four Gospels? Great book, btw, I am glad you wrote it. Thanks Jim

    • Bart
      Bart  December 1, 2019

      There certainly could be *some* information in them — for example some of the sayings of the Gospel of Thomas may be authentic. But on the whole they are legendary. And fascinating!

  2. Avatar
    godspell  November 29, 2019

    And I still don’t believe it’s a proven fact Jesus made any such claim. It’s likely he was accused of having made that claim, but to argue that is decisive evidence means one believes the Romans had a good understanding of Jewish apocalyptic cults, which seems unlikely. Pilate was not known for being careful about who he crucified, as you have made clear. Jesus was clearly often ambiguous in his mode of self-expression. That is a recipe for miscarriage of justice. If you want to call it that. Not Proven.

  3. Avatar
    mgagnon  November 29, 2019

    Hello Dr. Ehrman,

    Your post seems to start off saying there are not many sources for historical Jesus, yet later on you state that it is clear Jesus was raised in a small hamlet into a large family. However, is this perhaps too strong of a statement based on your introduction and on the lack of eye witness accounts? For me clear is 100% certainty and we don’t seem to have reached the standard to make such a claim.
    I’m also curious to know if you think historical Jesus could have been an ordinary man with a messiah complex, whose message resonated with people of the time and since then. History is full of charismatic people who were great orators that were able to sway and inspire people. It is interesting to think if Jesus could have been such a man.
    My last question/comment (although not specific to this post) is that the Bible and the early churches (and one could argue even some today) do not recognize many evils as forms of mental illness. Scientific advances are increasingly showing that many ‘evils’ are likely due to some brain abnormality and that one cannot always simply choose to be good nor are they ‘possessed’. I can understand that 2,000 years ago people could have thought you were possessed by the devil just like some thought the soul separated from the body when we sneezed. Yet, I am left wondering how the Bible, prophets, and others could be divinely inspired and yet be kept ignorant of this. Perhaps we were not yet ready for this knowledge at the time, but would there not be later prophets and divine influences to update our references such as the Bible? One could argue that a Bible – 2019 Edition could be in order.
    Sorry for the long post. Thank you again for your posts.

    • Bart
      Bart  December 1, 2019

      There are very good reasons for thinking both things — and of course I didn’t have time to spell the reasons out in this short post. The question about whether he had a messianic complex is FAR more speculative: the other two things are fairly certain. As to the inspiration of the Bible — for that you would need to ask a theologian, not a simple historian like me!

    • Avatar
      mwbaugh  December 4, 2019

      A 100% certainty is pretty much impossible for a historian. The further back you go the scantier the records and you can only draw conclusions from the evidence you have. While we don’t have that level of certainty about Jesus’ background, we don’t have it for most of the people we study in late antiquity. Even royalty is not well enough documented for us to reach your 100% level of certainty.

  4. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  November 29, 2019

    With regard to this subject, for those new to this blog, I strongly recommend Ehrman’s “Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium” and Schweitzer’s “The Quest of the Historical Jesus.”

  5. Avatar
    joeydag  November 29, 2019

    Were the twelve truly 12 or is one of those numbers like 40 as in 40 days and forty nights?

    Would twelve be a significant number? Would eleven or thirteen or fourteen in his inner circle have been “wrong” in some way?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 1, 2019

      Yes, I think it was an intentional number and there really were 12 (to coincide with the 12 tribes of Israel)

      • Avatar
        mwbaugh  December 4, 2019

        I believe you are right about the twelve. Actually, the number of tribes of Israel is a little dodgier. There are actually 14 different names of tribes given–Asher, Benjamin, Dan, Ephraim, Gad, Issachar, Judah, Joseph, Levi, Manasseh, Napthali, Reuben, Simeon, and Zebulun–but only 12 at a time appear on any list. I suspect it was important that the number always be 12, possibly because the number 12 comes from nature (12 months in one year).

  6. Avatar
    brenmcg  November 29, 2019

    But being raised from the dead shouldn’t lead to him being made lord of all – is it not better to say he claimed to be lord of all during his life and the belief in the resurrection confirmed this claim for the twelve?

    Also Luke says the family would travel to Jerusalem for the passover each year – do you think this is reasonable? Jesus would get at least some exposure to the greek language if this was true.

    • Bart
      Bart  December 1, 2019

      Oh, I completely disagree on that one! Have you read my book How Jesus Becqme God? That’s where I explain it all. And no, I don’t think impoverished families in Galilee made annual treks to Jerusalem for passover. They could not have afforded it, in terms of either time or money.

  7. Avatar
    saavoss  November 29, 2019

    I’m wondering about 2 things:
    First, if the Jews already had the practice of going to a mikvah, why did a person/prophet like John the Baptist have to begin a new practice of Baptism?
    Second, if Jesus inner circle knew that either there was no tomb, or perhaps the body was moved to a different tomb, and if at the time of Jesus death no one thought of him as divine, why would anyone defend and repeat the stories of a bodily resurrection & ascension?
    I heard somewhere, don’t remember where, that even the word “resurrection” did not mean a bodily reanimation of a dead body as it presumably does today. So where would such an unusual belief come from and why would such a belief, in the face of first hand witnesses disbelief, why/how would it “stick” and grow?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 1, 2019

      The ritual immersions of Judaism were for ceremonial impurity; John’s baptism was a different thing, a one time act of repentance in preparation for the coming Kingdom.

      I don’t think the inner circle did know. They had fled to Galilee. And yes, resurrection was not like a Near Death Experience or resuscittion; it was a view that developed within Judaism some 200 yerars before Jesus. God wold bring bodies back to life, forever.

  8. Avatar
    doug  November 29, 2019

    Interesting connection:

    The Passover festival celebrated God’s destruction of Israel’s enemies in the days of Moses.

    And Jesus likely taught that during or soon after his last Passover festival God would destroy his enemies for all time.

  9. Avatar
    Fernando Peregrin Gutierrez  November 29, 2019

    [B. E..] Jesus left his home, family, and work to be baptized …
    ————————
    What work did Jesus leave in Nazareth? The carpenter’s, as you can read in Mark 6: 3 and Matthew 13:55?
    It is very difficult to believe that Joseph, his father, had a carpentry in Nazareth – where Jesus helped him – an impoverished farmhouse with a small population, possibly less than a couple of hundred people, where the houses were roughly constructed and small , with very little use of wood, which was very scarce in the area.
    The people of Nazareth were essentially farmers, so they needed space between the houses for livestock and their enclosures, as well as land for plants and orchards.
    Those peasants would work with their own hands the few woods they needed, as they surely could not pay a professional carpenter.
    Some defenders of the inerrancy of the Bible see no problem with this rather strange fact of a carpentry in a village of between 30 and 40 houses: Joseph and his son had clients in all the surrounding villages.
    The nearest important city was Sepphoris. Several scholars have suggested that Jesus, while working as a craftsman in Nazareth, may have traveled to Sepphoris for work purposes, possibly with his father and brothers. Jesus does not seem to have visited Sepphoris during his public ministry and none of the sayings recorded in the Synoptic Gospels mention it.
    The carpenter’s job of Jesus of Nazareth, although it is said in the NT, seems quite unlikely.

    • Bart
      Bart  December 1, 2019

      Carpenters were not making fine cabinetry. Someone had to make the yokes for oxen; gates; and so on. Farmers needed wood-made materials, and most everyone was a farmer. So that was the business. But nothing suggests it was a 40-hour job….

  10. Avatar
    AstaKask  November 29, 2019

    Out of curiosity… if you tried to reproduce one of the Gospels (your choice) from memory (in Greek), how well do you think you would do?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 1, 2019

      I couldn’t do it, just because i’ve never tried to memorize one of them in Greek. I can say a few lines here and there, but it would take a conscientious effort actually to memorize one of them.

  11. Avatar
    mwbaugh  November 29, 2019

    Very nicely laid out!

    I know you are with the majority view that holds Jesus was an apocalyptic preacher and that there is a minority of historians, including John Dominic Crossan, who disagree. have you ever debated this with Mr. Crossan. Tat’s a presentation I’d love to see.

    • Bart
      Bart  December 1, 2019

      No, I’ve never had a debate with one of the non-Apocalypticists, who appear to be a disappearing breed.

  12. Avatar
    veritas  November 29, 2019

    In reading your blog, I always thought of the story pretty much as you mention. 1) The concept of establishing the kingdom of God here on earth was Jesus claim. When and who, and maybe .why, was it changed to going to heaven after death instead? Today, a lot of churches preach this latter version and I always believed the former as you pointed out. 2) Regarding Pilate and the trial of Jesus, when I read Mark 15 and Luke 23 for instance, I get a notion that Pilate wanted to release him and insisted to the Chief Priests he found nothing wrong with him and just punishment and release would be satisfactory So, where did you get the notion that Pilate saw him as a troublemaker and charged him with sedition? I do not see that. Is this your theological ( philosophical opinion) you deduce?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 1, 2019

      1) There’s no time, place, person we can pinpoint, but yes, as time went on the teaching came to be changed. I deal with the issue at some length in my forthcoming book on Heaven and Hell. 2) Yes indeed, as time went on Pilate becomes more and more innocent in the Christian tradition, precisely to take the blame off the “Romans” and to place it on the “Jews” I think I’ll post on that one!

  13. Avatar
    Omar6741  November 29, 2019

    “There can be no doubt that Jesus of Nazareth has been the most influential person in the history of the world.”
    Actually, there is considerable doubt about this, as witnessed by Michael H. Hart’s “The 100: A Ranking of the Most Influential Persons in History”, which does *not* give Jesus first place. It would be more accurate to write that he was “one of the most” influential persons.

    • Bart
      Bart  December 1, 2019

      Sorry, I completely disagree. Name someone more important today. (With two billion people worshiping him, and billions of others affected by the tradition founded in his name). Or in 1920. Or in 1220. Or in 620. Etc.

      • Avatar
        Omar6741  December 2, 2019

        Well, Hart’s choice for number one was the Prophet Muhammad, due to the unprecedented success and impact of his career in both secular and religious aspects of life.
        One of his reasons for *not* choosing Jesus as number one was that Paul had an impact on Christianity not much less than that of Jesus; consider, in particular, the worship of Jesus in Christianity, which is arguably not what the monotheistic Jewish Galilean Jesus had in mind at all.
        By contrast, the Prophet’s influence on his religion is not comparable to that of anyone among his followers.

        • Bart
          Bart  December 2, 2019

          Yes, that is a common view of Paul. But I disagree with it. Even so, I don’t think there’s any comparison between the secular and religious impact of Jesus and Mohammed. Think, well, Roman Empire. Middle Ages. Renaissance. Reformation. Enlightenment. Western dominance. Etc. etc. etc.

          • Avatar
            Leovigild  December 2, 2019

            Yes, but that is arguable. You mention say the Renaissance and Reformation. But the three most technologically and scientifically advanced empires in 1600 were the Ottomans, the Mughals, and Safavid Iran. So I think it’s not a slam-dunk.

          • Avatar
            turbopro  December 2, 2019

            >> Roman Empire. Middle Ages. Renaissance. Reformation. Enlightenment. Western dominance. Etc. etc. etc.

            If I may prof, if i think of the above, I think Philip II of Macedonia, Alexander The Great, Thales, Plato, Aristotle.

          • Bart
            Bart  December 3, 2019

            Yup, I completely agree. Though, of course, none of them is worshiped by 2 billion people!

  14. Avatar
    forthfading  November 29, 2019

    Dr. Ehrman,

    Why is Paul not considered a Jewish source of the 1st century? Did Paul think he was starting a new religion? If not, then why is he not considered a Jewish source?

    Thanks, Jay

    • Bart
      Bart  December 1, 2019

      I meant Jewish source written by someone who was not a follower of Jesus.

  15. Avatar
    aar8818  November 30, 2019

    I like how you put this in a blog post. I’d like to see a blog debate between you and an evangelical scholar about whether or not Jesus resurrected and was trulyGod. I’d also like to see a live debate on those topics specifically with your most recently developed views.

    • Bart
      Bart  December 1, 2019

      I have a number of debates on the topic on my Youtube channel, if you’re interested (and think some of them are on the blog as well).

      • Avatar
        aar8818  December 1, 2019

        Oh yes. I think I’ve seen about 90 percent of them. I’m subscribed to the channel. All great. I’d like to see a scholar(s) challenge you on your views in How Jesus became God and your responses (I have read how God became Jesus)

        • Avatar
          aar8818  December 2, 2019

          Hey Bart. I’m going to go back to the Ehrman Bird debate. I saw that one before. I’ll get back to you after rewatching it. I would like to see a blog response by you to Birds book.

          • Avatar
            aar8818  December 2, 2019

            I rewatched it. Very good. I think it would be interesting to create two blog topics, a summary rebuttal to Birds book and a summary rebuttal to Licona, or simply the view, that Jesus resurrected.

  16. Avatar
    Bill  November 30, 2019

    Pretty much sums it up. Thank you for doing that. This will be my Christmas card this year.

  17. Avatar
    Kmbwhitmore  November 30, 2019

    You say Josephus is the only one to mention Jesus and only briefly and that there are no Greek or Roman sources. What about the Gospel of Nicodemus, also called the Acts of Pontius Pilate. This is the real time proceedings of the trial conducted by Pilate. Nicodemus was a member of the Sanhedrin and would have been present for the trial. He may even have been the recording secretary although that was probably left to the Scribes. These and other real time documents would have been the ‘Source Q’ that the New Testament writers used.

    • Bart
      Bart  December 1, 2019

      The Gospel of Nicodemus/Acts of Pilate, as it has come down to us, goes back to the fourth century, though it is possible that the account is based on an earlier account of the second century. I provide a fresh translation of it, along with an introduction, in my book (done with Zlatko Plese) called The Other Gospels. It is definitely not a first-century source.

  18. Avatar
    Stephen  November 30, 2019

    Fascinating to have it laid out like that. Just a quibble, then. Can we really say that the historical Jesus was all that influential? Weren’t the real innovations that shaped the West creations of his followers, i.e., Mark’s suffering Messiah and Paul’s divine savior? Isn’t the irony that it was only by obscuring Jesus’ message that the Church was able to prosper?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 1, 2019

      Without the historical Jesus we would not have had the later understandings of Jesus. These transformed the world in a way unlike anything else, in history. So without the historical Jesus, our entire civilizatoin would be incalculably different.

  19. Avatar
    michael51  December 1, 2019

    Dr. Ehrman, when you say the enemies of God would be “annihilated,” do you mean just killed—deprived of physical life in this world—or do you mean they would have no longer have an existence of any kind in any form in any realm?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 1, 2019

      Yes, I mean annihilated out of existence. They would cease to be. I argue this in my forthcoming book on Heaven and Hell.

      • Avatar
        michael51  December 2, 2019

        I will have to read that when it comes out. I know it’s a view held by many, but I disagree because of what is said in the biblical references and because it is inconsistent with what I see is a philosophy of spirit-body-life. Maybe you’ll write a post to coincide with the release of the book?

      • Avatar
        mtavares  December 3, 2019

        Looking forward to the book. Do you think some NT authors hold an annihilation view and others a resurrect-to-punish view? I would imagine that would make for a tricky apologetic harmonization.

        • Bart
          Bart  December 6, 2019

          I’d say that Jesus and Paul had a resurrect-to-punish-by-annihilation view!

  20. Avatar
    kazawolf  December 1, 2019

    Great post, Bart. Interestingly though, there has been some pushback to your initial point. In historian Michael Hart’s book “The 100: a Ranking of the Most Influential Persons in History,” he lists Jesus third. Isaac Newton gets the number two spot, because of the enormous influence the Scientific Revolution has had on the natural world and our lives individually. Muhammad gets top honors, because Hart observes he *single-handedly* founded a religion which today has 1.8 billion followers. There are slightly more Christians of course, and Western Civilization has been dominated by Christianity, but he feels the credit for this must be divided between Jesus and St. Paul, who did all the heavy lifting of founding a church. He also feels we ignore many of Jesus’s central teachings, like turning the other cheek.

    Of course lists like these are the epitome of “Great Men” history, and highly speculative. But when the book was written, in 1978, the West wasn’t paying much attention to Islam. We are now. We also didn’t carry smartphones in our pockets with access to all the world’s knowledge, nor did anyone imagine Artificial Intelligence and its scary unknowns right around the corner. So in hindsight Hart seems eerily vindicated in his top two picks.

    • Bart
      Bart  December 1, 2019

      Yes, I know, but I completely disagree. Name someone more important today. (With two billion people worshiping him, and billions of others affected by the tradition founded in his name). Or in 1920. Or in 1220. Or in 620. Etc. Islam would not have existed (at least in the way it did) without Christianity; and the Enlightenment is unthinkable without the middle ages and the middle ages are unthinkable without Jesus.

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