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Why Do Christians Have an Old Testament? Another Trade Book.

This blog post is available to anyone in the universe, free of charge.  I provide five posts a week on the blog, but to have access to the others, you need to be a blog member.  Joining is easy and inexpensive.  I charge a fee in order to raise money for charity, giving every penny to help those who are poor, homeless, and in need.  So why not join and get full-access?  You’ll get lots for your money and the money all goes to good causes.

A month or so ago I posted a series of blogs about the next trade book I’m hoping to write, which I’m tentatively calling “Expecting Armageddon.”   As I explained then, when I decide what I want to write next, I do a lot of preliminary research to get my ideas together and then write up a kind of overview statement about why I’m interested in the topic, what I imagine the book would cover, why I think it’s both interesting and important, and how I would probably structure it (at least how I’m imagining I would – the end product is never what I anticipate at the outset).  This kind of overview statement to myself ends up being the basis for what I send to my publisher as a Prospectus.

The publisher takes the Prospectus, mulls it over, talks about it among themselves, and then decides whether they want to offer a contract on the book.  If not, I take it somewhere else.  If they do, then we enter into negotiations about the terms of the contract (the advance on royalties, etc.).

When I moved over to Simon & Schuster as my publisher a few years ago (from Harper where I had been before), my agent and I negotiated a two-book deal.    The first was The Triumph of Christianity and the second was a book-to-be-named-later.   (I actually wrote up a detailed Prospectus for a second book, which I really liked; but, well, they weren’t so sure about it.  So we decided to decide later and they gave me a contract without knowing what it would be.  When it came time to get serious about it, we hashed it out to our mutual agreement, and it is the book now in press, Heaven and Hell: A History of the Afterlife).

We are thinking about proposing a two-book deal again this time.  One reason I like that is that it allows me to be thinking about the second book for a couple of years before actually getting into the hard-core preparation/research for it full time.   The ideas percolate better that way.

And so for the second book of this possible two-book deal I would return to the idea I’ve had for years, dealing with the question, in short, of why Christians have the Old Testament.  In effect, Christians early on claimed that the Jewish Scriptures (i.e., the Hebrew Bible) belonged to them and not to the Jews.   That can be seen as ironic, since Christians who took the Bible as theirs did not follow the laws, customs, rituals, and festivals required in these books.   And so my questions are: why did they insist on having them as part of their Scripture a set of books they chose not to follow and how did the Christian insistence that the Old Testament was Christian rather than Jewish affect the Christians’ relationship with non-Christian Jews who insisted that no, the Hebrew Bible was their Scripture, not the Christians’?

It’s a complicated set of questions, which I’ve blogged about before.  But now that I have achieved some clarity on where I’d like the book to go, I thought I might lay out my thoughts here, in the terms I have laid them out to myself, prior to sending in a Prospectus.  So I’d welcome feedback.  This will take a number of posts.  Here’s how I’m imagining the initial lead-in:




In the summer of 1994 I was invited to be a speaker at the annual conference of the B-ai B’rith Institute of Judaism, held at the Wildacres Retreat Center in western North Carolina.   The week-long conference normally hosts three speakers to address various issues of interest to its Jewish attendees, in areas related to history, political science, literature, religion, and so on.   Most speakers are Jewish, but the organizers thought it might be interesting to have a non-Jew with historical expertise talk about the ancient history of Jewish-Christian relations, from the beginnings of Christianity up to the fourth century.

This was a topic I had long been interested in, but my teaching and lecturing on the matter had always been to audiences that were predominantly Christian (by upbringing or confession).   Most of the attendees at the conference, nearly all of them well-educated professionals, had only a vague knowledge of the New Testament including, in particular, the writings of Paul, and almost no understanding at all about what transpired in Jewish-Christian relations in the three or four centuries that followed.   Just about everything I told them was news.

For me that made it an exciting week.  But even more interesting were the reactions I received when people began to realize I wasn’t Jewish (it had not been advertised).   Once that happened, I started hearing the stories.  The most moving had to do with what it was like to grow up Jewish in the South.  It wasn’t good. Two of the elderly attendees told me, separately, that when they were in grade school, classmates asked them to show them their horns.

The history of “Jews have horns,” is long and complex.  Though possibly not widely known, it almost certainly has its roots in the New Testament.  In John chapter 8, Jesus is addressing his enemies, called, remarkably enough, simply “the Jews,” and he informs them that since they have rejected him, they are not children of God but “children of the Devil.”   If the devil has horns, so too, apparently, his offspring.

But doesn’t the Bible show that the Jewish people are the people of God?  The Chosen Ones?    How then did they become the progeny of Satan?

The answers lie in the Christian tradition even before the writing of the New Testament, in the novel ways the followers of Jesus, soon after his death, began to interpret the Jewish Scriptures.  This is the short story:  the earliest followers of Jesus thought Jesus had been predicted by the Hebrew prophets, and Jews who rejected him rejected both the Bible and the God who inspired it.   Non-Christian Jews practiced a false religion.

As a strange corollary, as the Christian movement grew, it began to acquire far more gentile believers than Jewish.   These gentiles saw no reason at all to become Jewish in order to follow Jesus, and as a result, they opted not to adopt Jewish customs and follow the Jewish law – a law that occupies the central place in the Bible.   These gentile Christians often looked upon the non-Christian Jews as following an obsolete religion that was no longer relevant.  And yet they retained the Scripture of the Jews (including its laws) and began to call it the Old Testament, claiming it was theirs.   And theirs only.  It was not a Jewish book.   This was not simply a benign theological view with no social implications.  It led to harsh antagonism between Jews and Christians that eventuated in anti-Semitic slander and violence that has characterized much of Western history for the past two millennia.


Is the Old Testament a Christian Book?
Interview for “Letters & Politics” on The Triumph of Christianity



  1. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  June 3, 2019

    Your creativity and scholarship continue to amaze me. You have a gift which you have worked hard to cultivate. Carry on!

  2. Avatar
    Judith  June 3, 2019

    “…available to anyone in the universe…:
    Really, Dr. Ehrman!
    Tell Sarah she needs to step up her game if she is serious about keeping you humble for us.

  3. Avatar
    rburos  June 4, 2019

    1. I believe you touched on this in your video on Jesus and the Law. I would be interested in a much more complex look into the question.

    2. Why wouldn’t Paul’s discussion of the Law for Gentiles preclude a desire to use the OT? Or is the argument from number one above more apropos?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 5, 2019

      The OT was still Scripture for Paul, and the “Word of God.” But it’s prescriptions for Jews (laws that made Jews Jewish) did not need to be followed by Gentile followers of Jesus (e.g., circumcision, sabbath, festivals, kosher food, etc.)

  4. Avatar
    Pattycake1974  June 5, 2019

    “No one could argue with the Jews for wanting to throw off Roman rule. Since the Romans had first occupied Israel in 63 B.C.E., their rule had grown more and more onerous. From almost the beginning of the Common Era, Judea was ruled by Roman procurators, whose chief responsibility was to collect and deliver an annual tax to the empire…Equally infuriating to the Judeans, Rome took over the appointment of the High Priest (a turn of events that the ancient Jews appreciated as much as modern Catholics would have appreciated Mussolini appointing the popes). As a result, the High Priests, who represented the Jews before God on their most sacred occasions, increasingly came from the ranks of Jews who collaborated with Rome…

    The Jews’ anti-Roman feelings were seriously exacerbated during the reign of the half-crazed emperor Caligula, who in the year 39 declared himself to be a deity and ordered his statue to be set up at every temple in the Roman Empire. The Jews, alone in the empire, refused the command; they would not defile God’s Temple with a statue of pagan Rome’s newest deity.

    Caligula threatened to destroy the Temple, so a delegation of Jews was sent to pacify him. To no avail. Caligula raged at them, “So you are the enemies of the gods, the only people who refuse to recognize my divinity.” Only the emperor’s sudden, violent death saved the Jews from wholesale massacre. Caligula’s action radicalized even the more moderate Jews…

    In the decades after Caligula’s death, Jews found their religion subject to periodic gross indignities, Roman soldiers exposing themselves in the Temple on one occasion, and burning a Torah scroll on another.

    Ultimately, the combination of financial exploitation, ROME’S UNBRIDLED CONTEMPT FOR JUDAISM, and the unabashed favoritism that the Romans extended to gentiles living in Israel brought about the revolt.”

    Joseph Telushkin. Jewish Literacy

    • Bart
      Bart  June 7, 2019

      Note: this is referring to relations between Rome and the land of Judea. Of course the vast majority of Jews then (as now) did not live there.

  5. Avatar
    Pattycake1974  June 5, 2019

    “During the Ptolemaic period relations between the Jews and the government were, in general, good. Only twice, in 145 and in 88 B.C.E., did insignificant clashes occur, seemingly with a political background. Many of the Jews even acquired citizenship in the city. The position of the Jews deteriorated at the beginning of the Roman era. Rome sought to distinguish between the Greeks, the citizens of the city to whom all rights were granted, and the Egyptians, upon whom a poll tax was imposed and who were considered a subject people. The Jews energetically began to seek citizenship rights, for only thus could they attain the status of the privileged Greeks. Meanwhile, however, *ANTISEMITISM had taken deep root. The Alexandrians vehemently opposed the entry of Jews into the ranks of the citizens. In 38 C.E., during the reign of *Caligula, serious riots broke out against the Jews.”

    V.A. Tcherikover, Hellenistic Civilization and the Jews

    • Bart
      Bart  June 7, 2019

      Yes, this is a political situation that arose in Alexandria Egypt at one point. It’s not a problem “the Jews” had in the Roman empire.

  6. Avatar
    Pattycake1974  June 5, 2019

    “They were furthermore disturbed not a little by an oracle, reputed to be an utterance of the Sibyl, which, although it did not fit this period of the city’s history at all, was nevertheless applied to the situation then existing. 5 It ran:

    “When thrice three hundred revolving years have run their course,
    Civil strife upon Rome destruction shall bring, and the folly, too,
    Of Sybaris . . .”
    Tiberius, now, denounced these verses as spurious and made an investigation of all the books that contained p163 any prophecies, rejecting some as worthless and retaining others as genuine.

    5a As the Jews flocked to Rome in great numbers and were converting many of the natives to their ways, he banished most of them.”

    Cassius Dio. Roman History, Book 57

    “He abolished foreign cults, especially the Egyptian and the Jewish rites, compelling all who were addicted to such superstitions to burn their religious vestments and all their paraphernalia. Those of the Jews who were of military age he assigned to provinces of less healthy climate, ostensibly to serve in the army; the others of that same race or of similar beliefs he banished from the city, on pain of slavery for life if they did not obey. He banished the astrologers as well, but pardoned such as begged for indulgence and promised to give up their art.”

    Suetonius, Lives of the Twelve Caesars, Vol 3, “Tiberius”, Section 36

    • Bart
      Bart  June 7, 2019

      Notice: this is an incident in Rome because of a particular incident. It was not a Roman-empire wide issue. And banning *all* foreign cults shows that Jews were not the principle focus.

      • Avatar
        godspell  June 7, 2019

        Please note that Tiberius banned all Jews from the city because a Roman woman of rank was converted to Judaism (this could not, like the later expulsion by Claudius, be a case of Jews being conflated with Christians).

        The Jews were expected to know their place, not try to expand or even explain their queer monotheistic practices to pagans, pay a tax just for being Jews (I believe that was Julius Caesar’s contribution, and an enduring one it proved to be, adopted by the Byzantines, the Popes, and the Muslims), and accept their permanent subjugation–and any infraction by even a small number of Jews (while many others remained loyal obedient productive citizens) could prove disastrous for all of them.

        What changed under Christianity was, as you’ve explained in an earlier book, Christianity intended to be the only religion–but pagans and Christian heretics were treated far more harshly. The Jews had a grandfathered-in status from the earlier empire, and their rights to maintain their customs were usually respected after Constantine–with the usual caveat that if they didn’t know their place, or caused any trouble, watch out. And again, it would be all Jews who paid, not just the ones who got a bit rowdy.

        And you know, some of them did rise up against the Eastern Empire–twice!–when Islam began attacking from the east. (Byzantium’s difficulty is Judaism’s opportunity, heh, the Irish really are the lost tribe of Israel). Which in retrospect could be seen as a strategic error on their part, but all hindsight is 20/20.

        • Bart
          Bart  June 9, 2019

          What is your (ancient) source of information about Tiberius banning all Jews from Rome?

  7. Avatar
    Pattycake1974  June 5, 2019

    “1. [An. 36.] But the nation of the Samaritans did not escape without tumults. And as they abode at a certain village, which was called Tirathaba, they got the rest together to them, and desired to go up the mountain in a great multitude together. The man who excited them to it was one who thought lying a thing of little consequence: and who contrived every thing so, that the multitude might be please. So he bid them to get together upon mount Gerizzim: which is by them looked upon as the most holy of all mountains: and assured them, that when they were come thither, he would shew them those sacred vessels which were laid under that place; because Moses put them there. (9) So they came thither armed; and thought the discourse of the man probable. And as they abode at a certain village, which was called Tirathaba, they got the rest together to them, and desired to go up the mountain in a great multitude together.

    But Pilate prevented their going up, by seizing upon the roads, with a great band of horsemen, and footmen: who fell upon those that were gotten together in the village: and when it came to an action, some of them they slew; and others of them they put to flight; and took a great many alive. The principal of which, and also the most potent of those that fled away, Pilate ordered to be slain.
    2. But when this tumult was appeased, the Samaritan senate sent an ambassy to Vitellius; a man that had been consul, and who was now president of Syria; and accused Pilate of the murder of those that were killed. For that they did not go to Tirathaba in order to revolt from the Romans; but to escape the violence of Pilate.”

    Josephus, Jewish Antiquities (18.3.5)

    What I think is important here is that Pilate is claiming this as a rebellion against Rome. The Samaritans are saying, no—we were trying to get away from him because he just wants to kill us. I don’t see how Pilate can be viewed as his actions being fully politically motivated.

    • Bart
      Bart  June 7, 2019

      It’s a rebellion within one of the Roman provinces. YOu’ve made several posts citing ancient sources: all to the good! I’d suggest you read up on the scholarship on these various rebellions and uprising, and possibly on some of the studies of the rise of anti-Semitism. A good place to start is Rosemary Ruether, Faith and Fratricide.

  8. Avatar
    markdeckard  June 7, 2019

    So what conclusion do you hope the readers of this book will arrive at with you?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 7, 2019

      One big one would be that the followers of Jesus were not originally anti-Jewish, and maybe modern followers of Jesus should think about that.

      • Avatar
        godspell  June 7, 2019

        Bart, I think you know better than most that ‘Followers of Jesus’ spend more time arguing with each other than anybody else. Much like the Jews who gave birth to them. 😉

  9. Avatar
    Zak1010  June 8, 2019

    I have always believed that the early followers of Jesus followed The Torah, Tanakh and Talmud, which explains why they needed the O.T. It wasn’t till Paul entered the scene that he abrogated much of it. ( explaining the disagreements Paul had with earliest students / followers of Jesus ) . Jesus said he came to fulfill the law ( which is found in the Torah Tanakh and Talmud) , Paul taught and preached the opposite. Choices were made to follow Jesus or follow Paul.

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