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Why Christians Needed an Old Testament: Pagan Attacks on the Faith

In my discussion why Christians claimed the Jewish Bible for themselves (and argued it no longer belonged to Jews), I’ve been focusing strictly on the relationship of Jews and Christians, for obvious reasons.  But as it turns out, there is more to it than that.   Here is an issue that is hardly ever talked about in the scholarship on the rise of anti-Judaism in early Christianity, let alone among lay people wondering about why mainstream Christianity became opposed to Jews and the religion they practiced in antiquity (leading to the anti-Judaism and then the antisemitism of later times.)   This issue involves Christians’ relations not with Jews, but with pagans, and the rejection of the new Christian faith by the world at large.

As is well known, apart from Jews and Christians, everyone in the Roman empire was pagan – that is, everyone followed one or more of the polytheistic religions of that world.  I do not need to detail the various kinds of pagan religion found throughout the Roman Empire.   But a couple of important features can explain what Christians confronted once they emerged as distinct religious groups outside of both paganism and Judaism.   One notable feature of pagan religions is that they were by and large tolerant of religious difference.  All pagans realized that …

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Why Was the World Created in 4004 BC?
The Jewish Bible in the Gentile Churches



  1. Avatar
    Pegill7  June 23, 2019

    Does the Apostle Paul believe that those who were already Jews and choose to convert to Christianity have a different relationship to the Law than those who convert directly from paganism? Somehow I get that impression from reading Paula Fredrikson’s “Paul: The Pagans’Apostle”?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 24, 2019

      That’s my sense. I think he thought Jews as a whole were free to continue to maintain their Jewish identity, unless it interfered in some way with them following the gospel. But teh commitment to Christ was primary.

  2. Avatar
    Brand3000  June 23, 2019

    Dr. Ehrman,

    As you have explained, following the resurrection experiences, Christians re-interpreted the Jewish scriptures. Yet, is it also true that through the ages Jewish people themselves have interpreted and re-interpreted their own scriptures?

  3. Avatar
    Tempo1936  June 23, 2019

    Our good friends are dedicated Christians. However their son married a Jewish girl and They now have a daughter. When our friends visit their son they cannot understand why their daughter-in-law is opposed to Christianity. They cannot comprehend that she feels Christians stole her religion and helped which lead to Lots of distress for the Jewish people.
    My friends feel somewhat arrogant and claim they love the Jews, they worship a jew

    • Avatar
      mkahn1977  June 24, 2019

      I was raised a reform Jew, my wife is Lutheran. She actually researched interfaith marriage before we tied the knot. Both my parents and hers have never been 100% comfortable because of the cultural and religious differences, despite my in-laws going above and beyond to be accommodating. My mother is always worried about my not being Jewish enough. I just deal with it as best I can, so I kinda know how you feel.

  4. Avatar
    godspell  June 24, 2019

    “You can worship any way you like, as long as you worship my way too, and that is going to cost you money.”

    Again, I don’t consider this tolerance in the modern sense, which it’s unreasonable to expect from people living then (and good luck getting it from many living now), but the fact remains, it wasn’t about respecting the beliefs of others. It was just the Roman way, to absorb other nations, other cultures, and make them knuckle under. “You have your gods, but ours are stronger, because look who won.”

    The Jews felt deeply offended by the ‘tolerance’ shown them by Rome (which was frequently violated by Rome in various humiliating ways). They got what little they did because of the constant threat of rebellions that were costly to put down, but the rebellions themselves prove there was no real tolerance. And what followed the biggest rebellion was anything but indicative of a respect for the antiquity of Judaism.


    When you believe in many gods, you can always find room for more. Yes, if Jews and Christians had said “Our god is one among many, and we believe in yours as well” they’d have had no problem. And they wouldn’t be Jews or Christians.

    It was under Christianity that, over a long period of time, the idea of true freedom of worship (or freedom from worship) took root. Rome’s idea was not tolerance, but obedience.

    And much of what went wrong with Christianity can be traced to its absorbing Roman ideas of Church and State after Constantine. And those ideas are still around.

  5. Avatar
    AstaKask  June 24, 2019

    And those Christians who rejected the Old Testament were weeded out by history.

    • Avatar
      godspell  June 25, 2019

      I don’t know how many of those there would have been. The books of the NT refer constantly to the OT. Jesus clearly revered it, drew from it. And nobody owns a book (certainly not in the ages before copyright).

      The question to be debated would be which books of the OT they needed. And that was debated. Many times. Debated again when the Reformation happened, leading to a shorter Protestant bible.

      Jesus’ version of Judaism was based on the OT, and that was the basis for Christianity. How could they possibly build a religion around the NT alone? There’s not enough material in there. And other than the gospels, the stories in the OT are better (yes, it matters).

      The only other option would be to do what Muhammad and Joseph Smith did–write an entirely new book from scratch–but both of those books are influenced by the OT as well, and both groups still revere the earlier texts, while believing their books are the capstone to it.

      Maybe it wasn’t absolutely inevitable, but it was overwhelmingly probable.

      And it wasn’t entirely a good thing, but overall, probably a better choice than just starting from scratch, rewriting the past entirely.

  6. Avatar
    Gerberman07  June 24, 2019

    Hey Dr. Ehrman,

    Do you have a roughly estimated time for this book?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 24, 2019

      No — I haven’t even decided if I’ll write it! But if I do, I’ll certainly be posting about it.

  7. Avatar
    Silver  June 24, 2019

    An off-post question if I may, please. I have recently encountered the ‘pistis Christou’ debate which considers whether this should be translated as ‘faith in Christ’ or ‘the faith(fulness) of Christ’. Do you have a view on this, please?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 24, 2019

      Yeah, a rather strong one. “Faith in Christ.” That seems to be what the context demands, in my judgment.

      • Avatar
        Hngerhman  July 7, 2019

        Dr Ehrman –

        Would you be able to point us towards the best arguments on each side of this debate? Without much grounding in the scholarship on the specific /debate, I had always implicitly understood “faith in”, and then recently listening to a lecture by LT Johnson, I got thrown for a loop (he’s a “faithfulness of” guy).

        Thanks in advance!

        • Bart
          Bart  July 8, 2019

          I’m afraid I haven’t followed the debate for years. I will say, though, that my sense is that a lot of it is driven by previous theological views about the sovereignty of God (NOTHING a person does can bring salvation, not even having faith) and the desire to have more of the life of Jesus enter into Paul’s teaching (It is all about Jesus’ own faithfulness, not about someone having faith in him.) The view may be right, but I don’t think it’s the most natural way of reading the text. But, as I say, I’m not sure what the best places would be to turn for fuller discussion.

          • Avatar
            Hngerhman  July 8, 2019

            Thanks a ton!

  8. Avatar
    jrhislb  June 24, 2019

    A comparison to the Jewish attitude to Judaism could be interesting. Islam did not keep the Jewish scriptures as part of their religion, but similarly to Christianity claims to be the true continuation of the ancient Jewish religion. Did not having the Jewish scriptures paradoxically lead to less need to denigrate the Jews?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 24, 2019

      My argument is that it led to *more*. If the Xn view of the OT was right, the Jewish view (for the Xns) had to be shown to be wrong.

      • Avatar
        jrhislb  June 25, 2019

        We seem to be saying the same thing, with the Old Testament leading to more antisemitism from the Christians as compared to Muslims.

  9. Avatar
    dannawid  June 24, 2019

    Dr. Ehrman,
    Would it be accurate to state the following:
    Jesus is a Jewish reformer, his early followers thought him a prophet. He preached to Jews not pagans. To believe in his reforms one has to be Jewish. As Jews consider themselves chosen by God, as He made a covenant with them, to uphold the Hebrew Torah, they do not try to proselytize others. Although the septugint (seventy rabbis) translated the Torah to Greek, it was meant for the Greek speaking Jews. A practicing Jew would stand out as an oddity in the pagan Roman society. Believing in an unseen God, observing the Sabath, not eating pork, cicumcision, etc. And here comes Paul with a great marketing strategy to win converts among the people Jesus had no intention of converting.
    So he had no problem with Jews remaining faithful to the Law, the men were already cicumsised. But the pagans will not have to change their way of life and adopt foreign customs. only to worship a new god and his son, mostly his son. thus a new religion seperate from that of Jesus was born, it was called Christianity. Its adherents are exempt from living by the Laws.
    The new religion has to have historical ligitimacy and has to appease those who knew the unudelterated teaching of Jesus, so the septugint OT was included in the doctrines of the new religion.

    • Bart
      Bart  June 25, 2019

      Yes, pretty much I agree down the line. (Though the idea that the Septuagint was literally a translatoin done by 70 Jewish scholars is almost certainly a legend.)

      • Avatar
        Lebo55  July 3, 2019

        Dr. Ehrman

        I’m Christian orthodox but do take a critical approach to reading the Bible (the old Testament mostly) I do enjoy your talks and debates and have been meaning to ask,
        with new research material on the Bible both old and new are the writings of the desert fathers and st. John chrysostom still relevant to understanding what the Bible is saying (or is not saying) especially since these were written centuries after the events they write about.

        The old Testament for example, the stuff I’ve been reading paints a totally different picture from what at least the first five books is saying

        • Bart
          Bart  July 3, 2019

          They are relevant for how the Bible was being *interpreted* by different people at different times, which is itself a fascinating and important field of scholarship. But in my judgment these interpretations are not necessarily probative with respect to the original meaning of the text.

  10. Avatar
    JamesFouassier  June 25, 2019

    Professor, although it makes sense and is logical, just how widespread was acceptance of the argument that “In order to defend themselves against charges brought against their dangerous “novelties,” Christians had to claim that, despite appearances, they really did have ancient roots.” Seems like a pretty hard sell for gentile Christians to get across to the pagan authorities and establishment. I suppose one could claim that nothing succeeds like success and that the proof of the pudding was the success of the mission, but was it so simple?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 26, 2019

      Yeah, I’d say it was a hard sell. Except among the converted!

  11. Avatar
    Zak1010  June 26, 2019

    Dr Ehrman,
    Is it safe to say that Christianity, the way we know it today is Pauline and Nicean theologies in nature ( new theology ) and that Jesus did not preach a new theology, rather preached an old existing one in which was not being practiced (followed). Jesus was sent to revive it not to invent a new one? And that he was a role model to his followers in such a way that if they followed his teachings then they would be saved. Just as Abraham, David, Mosses with there teaching and preaching that if their followers practiced and followed them respectively they would be saved.
    “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life, no one comes to the Father except by me”and “You shall know the Truth, and the Truth will set you free” applies to all messengers and prophets in a sense that they were all role models to their respective followers with the promise of God’s pleasure and grace? Eternal good life.
    If this is correct, can we safely say that Paul who is not a prophet and Constantine who was a pagan had other motives in this New Theology?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 27, 2019

      I’d say that there are some good and right ideas here, but that it’s really a lot more complicated. Just with the first sentence, Christianity is extremely diverse today, not simply a monolithic Pauline/Nicene entity. And I would say that Jesus was indeed a reformer, though he did not envisage starting a new religion, etc. The quotatoins you give of Jesus come from John, and I don’t think they are historically reliable indications of what Jesus actually taught. Etc…. Each of your points would be worth fleshing out.

  12. Avatar
    Zak1010  June 27, 2019

    Dr Ehrman,
    Then can we say :
    Jesus never preached anti-Jewish. Quite the contrary, he taught and warned his people to go back and follow the law and be true to the book of God, The Torah.
    The disciples taught what Jesus preached. Consistent with Jewish law / customs. Jewish Christians. ( earliest Christians )
    Paul was at odds with the disciples of Jesus ( mainly because they criticized Paul’s teaching being contradictory to Jesus’s teaching ) Inconsistent with Jewish law and customs.
    Paul converted predominantly Gentiles into his Christianity.
    The Gentiles were pagan.
    Gentiles converted to a new faith with some elements of paganism which was anti-Jewish in form / non Jewish( Early Christians ). They were also anti Earliest Christians. Further furthering them away … inconsistent with Jewish law.
    The New Testament was collected with the transformation of the new faith / and has been corrupted by humans ( Early Christians ) ( Early Christian Fathers )… deletions and insertions. Most crucial insertions…. Anti-Jewish rhetoric to separate the new faith and be distinct perhaps leading to Antisemitism.

    • Bart
      Bart  June 28, 2019

      I agree up to the last two paragraphs. I would say the earliest antagonism between followrs of Jesus and other Jews happened within the Jewish communities, not between pagan converts and Jews.

  13. Avatar
    Marko071291  June 28, 2019

    HI Bart,

    It seems to me that one of the major reasons for the success of Christianity is precisely this integration (and not rejection) of the jewish tradition into their own new religious movment. In a way it started from the beggining when you consider the fact that already in the Matthew’s gospel Jesus is potrayed as a new Moses!
    Have you ever came across a book or article that deals with this issue. Namely, how different christian authors (e.g. Justin) tried to adopt and re-interpret old Jewish tradition in the light of their new religion. I’ve found only an article done by Lewis Ayers “Continuity and Change in Second-Century Christianity” in: J. Paget (ed.) “Christianity in second century: themes and development”.
    Hope you can help me,
    Kind Regards!

    • Bart
      Bart  July 1, 2019

      Lots of scholarship on that. You might try to look for books with titles like Judaism and Christian Beginnings, or Jewish Origins of Christainity, etc.?

  14. Avatar
    Eskil  June 28, 2019

    The OT writes had done the same, right? They needed the antediluvian stories of older religions and attached them as prefix of Genesis. I have read that the antediluvian stories where the last parts added into OT. That explains why the antediluvian character are not referenced in the later OT books. What is you view on this?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 30, 2019

      Yup, similar problems in OT and NT; but not the early parts of Genesis were decidedly not later additions. They are among the earlier portions.

      • Avatar
        Eskil  July 1, 2019

        Creating man from clay and destroying humans with flood myths are universal and hence not Jewish from origin, I assume. Could these be Hellenic influences in OT?

        • Bart
          Bart  July 1, 2019

          Possibly. But the oldest examples actually go make far earlier than Greek myths to Mesopotamian ones.

  15. Avatar
    Zak1010  June 29, 2019

    Dr Ehrman

    Point well taken. Yes Sir, there was infighting / conflict in the Jewish communities before and after Jesus.

    However, after the destruction of Jerusalem and the exodus / exit of Jews, did the early Christians label Jews as Rebels of God / Alien / companions of the devil…..ect?. and if so, Would it be safe to say that by the forth century the Christian leaders turned the faith/theology political and remained that way till the mid 1960’s when the Pope tried to change their political views? ( with respect to Jews) for obvious reasons, mainly the establishment and strong presence of the State of Israel in 1948. Political not theological.
    My real question is ( and I understand I only have 3 posts per topic so I guess I’ll get to it ) Since The Theology of the Church turned Political, and politics should not be mixed with religion / theology; should we not revert back to the very beginning and follow Jesus’s earliest commands. Uphold the Mosaic law of the Torah . Follow the commandments…all of them? I mean, if we were sucked into the corrupted teachings of The Church Fathers and we see how unreliable and human the NT is, why do we still follow it? At the end of the day, we will be held accountable for our actions and inaction with the knowledge we acquire.

    • Bart
      Bart  June 30, 2019

      I’m not sure what you’re thinking of as the time when theology turned political and that politics and religion should not be mixed. In antiquity they were inextricably intertwined and no one saw a problem with that. That all changed only with the Enlightenment, and only in some places (such as the U.S.)

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