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Why Jesus?

This will be my last post for a while dealing with the question of whether Jesus’ ethics can be translated from his own mythological context of Jewish apocalyptic thought into the modern world that is based (for me at least) on a completely different view of life, meaning, and reality.  In my last post I indicated that I thought that it was indeed possible to make this kind of translation if one wants to.  But I ended by asking why one – or rather I – would want to.   That is, why focus on Jesus in particular?

I don’t think I want to do so because I think that Jesus is “the greatest ethical teacher of all time.”  I have no idea if this is even a contest that can be won, and even if it is, I am not qualified to evaluate Jesus in relation to other great ethical teachers so as to declare him a winner.  So that seems to me to be a dead end.

So why Jesus?

I don’t have a compelling answer, but I do have one that – for now, at least – seems acceptable to me.   I should preface this by saying that I do *not* and never *will* maintain that anyone should have an exclusive focus on Jesus’ teachings, any more than on the teachings of Socrates, Epictetus, Montaigne, or Thoreau.   I love to read 19th century novels, mainly because I do indeed find their moral lessons worthy of learning and because I find that they ennoble my spirit and make me want to be a better person, whether I’m reading Austen, the Bronte sisters (all three!), Dickens, Thackeray, Eliot, Hugo, Dostoevsky,  Tolstoy, or – well, pick your great author!   And I think that one could build an ethical life on the basis of such writers.

But I do also think that the teachings of Jesus can contribute to making people better and society better.  That itself should be reason not to ignore Jesus.  Why would anyone insist that you ignore Charlotte Bronte or George Eliot?  If we wouldn’t insist on this, why should we insist on ignoring Jesus?  Or Seneca?  Or the author of Ecclesiastes?

But why pick Jesus in particular, at least, as ONE of the figures to focus on?  For me there is an issue of reality and an issue of practicality.

In terms of reality, my reality is this: I was raised in a Christian culture, in a Christian household, and in a Christian environment.  That is the world I emerged from.  Why should I reject everything from my past, everything that had a formative influence on me, simply because I have moved on?  My world has been shaped by the Christian tradition whether I like it or not, and I am who I am in no small part because of the Christian tradition, whether I like it or not.   As it turns out, I rather do like it, even though I am no longer in any identifiable sense a Christian.  I think there is a lot to be said about the Christian tradition, even though I’m not in it.  And it is the tradition that has most affected me.

I should stress: it is IMPOSSIBLE to be raised OUTSIDE of a tradition.  And EVERYONE is shaped by the tradition they are raised in, whether they think so, want it be so, wish it were not so, or not.   Finding what is good in one’s tradition surely is a noble way of being human.

In terms of practicality, my practicality is this:  I am a New Testament scholar.   What do I know best?  The New Testament.   This is where I live, move, and have my being.   I study, teach it, and write about it for a living.  And so why *not* celebrate aspects of it (while, of course, rejecting whole heartedly other aspects of it)?  I am a scholar who specializes, among other things, in the historical Jesus.   Why would I ignore what I know most about when trying to determine what I believe and how I should live?

Let me put it in the shortest form I can.   Jesus held to a mythological view that said that the world as we know it was soon to end, that God was soon to intervene in history in a cataclysmic show of power to destroy the forces of evil and bring in a kingdom in which the righteous would be rewarded.  In that kingdom life would be perfect – and those who wanted to inherit that kingdom needed to begin implementing its ideals in the present.  In the kingdom there will be no war and so people should strive for peace now; there will be hatred and so people should love one another now; there will be no demonic forces and so people should oppose the demons now; there will be no illness and so people should heal the sick now; there will be no loneliness and so people should visit those who are isolated now; there will be no oppression and so people should work for justice now.

I myself think Jesus was completely wrong about his mythological view (just as, in 2000 years, people will think that my 21st century American ideology is completely wrong).   The apocalypse never arrived and was never *going* to arrive.  There never was to be a cataclysmic break in history, never was to be a destruction of the forces of evil, never was to be a utopian kingdom here on earth.

At the same time, I myself have a vision of a perfect world, the world that I would like there to be.  It’s a lot like the world Jesus imagined, but without a messiah to rule it and without God to bring it in.  It too is a world without poverty and homelessness and oppression and injustice and greed and backstabbing and violence and hatred and war; a world where people who suffer from natural disasters receive fast and sufficient relief; a world where climate change is brought under control, where all people – whether gay, straight, black, white, young, old – have equal rights.   I don’t think this world will ever come, but I believe in it.  And if I imitate the teachings of Jesus, I will strive for it.  I will work to feed the hungry and house the homeless, I will work for peace and justice; I will advocate for fairness and for the impoverished and oppressed and slighted; I will visit the sick and lonely; I will push for policies that avoid and prevent war and that do not destroy the planet.   And so on and on.   This would be Jesus’ ethic transposed into a 21st century key.   And I guess at the end of the day, it’s an ethic I believe in.


Something New on the Blog
Answer to My Objections on Demythologizing

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    Dan Warren  January 22, 2013

    “Why would I ignore what I know most about when trying to determine what I believe and how I should live?”

    An excellent answer to those who ask, “Why talk about religion if you don’t believe?”

    Thank you.

  2. Avatar
    billgraham1961  January 22, 2013

    Your comments remind me of what Barack Obama said in his second inaugural speech yesterday:

    “For history tells us that while these truths may be self-evident, they have never been self-executing; that while freedom is a gift from God, it must be secured by His people here on Earth.”

    You and President Obama make excellent points. To the degree that I can, therefore, I will assist in the realization of these principles as long as I have breath.

  3. Avatar
    Stephen A.  January 22, 2013

    First, thanks for posting the entire post so non-subscribers can read it all. It’s an important subject and I’m a “fan” of your work.

    Second, I’m astounded that, as a scholar, you seem to take the Gospel account of Jesus’ apocalyptic sayings as uncritically, as, um “gospel.” Even if they were all 100% accurately transmitted (again, that’s not your view according to all I’ve read and seen of your lectures online) surely you have the ability to either see these statements in the context of their time – as a reaction to the Roman occupation and the corruption of the religious leaders of the day – or, barring that (or with it) from a Preterist point of view, since obviously Jesus wasn’t “wrong” about these predictions, as you contend, if one views them as “coming true” in AD70, when the entire Jewish “world” surely did come to an end with the destruction of Jerusalem and the diaspora of the Jews.

    And one need not necessarily see Jesus as someone prophetically “seeing” these things in the sense of remote viewing or God whispering in his ear, but as someone with the good sense to see that their would be a collision of Worldviews between Judea and Rome one day, within the lifetime of some of them to whom he was talking. It’s the skeptic and anti-Christian detractor’s mistake to jump to the view that since Jesus didn’t literal return in the clouds for 2000 years, he was “wrong” about his predictions, or, worse, that his moral teachings were wrong because of this failing, which I don’t see as such, because I don’t interpret his words as promising a worldwide, “rapture-like” event.

    As a Jesus follower who sees the Gospels in historical context and with the aid of critical scholarship and reason, I have no problem separating the warnings of Jesus to the Jews about the coming “apocalypse” (which I think he got right, in AD70) and the moral teachings of Jesus to the world (the call to be the salt of the earth/light to the world) and appreciating both. I don’t know why it would be difficult for you, as an agnostic, to appreciate those differences, if not the moral teachings themselves.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  January 24, 2013

      You may want to read my book

        Jesus, Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium

      where I deal with the issue of how we know what Jesus actually taught. I don’t think Jesus’ apocalyptic discourse could be a reference to the events of the year 70. When that happened, stars did not fall from the sky and the Kingdom of God did not arrive, with the twelve apostles ruling over the twelve tribes….

      • Avatar
        Stephen A.  January 28, 2013

        Dr. Ehrman. Thanks for your response. I will check out your book (I have not yet read that one.) But I do think you’re placing a rather high value here on literalism (again, oddly, given your views on Christianity, many of which I share.) That Jesus spoke in metaphor and by using parables is undeniable, especially since he is said to have stated outright that he spoke parabolically. Clearly, the Jewish world “ended” at that time (and surely came to a complete end after the Bar Kochba revolt was put down in the 130s.) Therefore, we need not LITERALLY expect stars to fall (as we know they cannot) and of course we cannot know if (or when) the twelve apostles are ruling over twelve tribes in heaven. We do know, from early accounts, that James the Just and other apostles either died in the AD 60s or soon thereafter, but I would hardly try to argue for any kind of literal, on-earth fulfillment of that prophesy, just that many likely died in 70 or soon thereafter, simply by reasonable analysis of that age’s lifespans.

  4. Avatar
    Jdavis3927  January 22, 2013

    You tha man Bart:)

  5. bchungdmd
    bchungdmd  January 22, 2013

    Dear Sir, I know it sounds crazy, but let me try.

    Why Jesus? This is what I was trained as a fundamentalist, the goal was always to imitate him, and to make a better world. But now it is ever so clear that our biblical imagery of Jesus was so what created by the help and imagination of the first century believers in the Jesus whom they have never met, nor seen. It remains to this day, they have created an image that is ever so powerful, after centuries of debunking this god, this faith, you still come back to this image of a gentle, yet revolutionary Jesus, whose vision of God and his kingdom is ever so inviting. I call you to note that there is God in all of us, that is, there is goodness (gott) in all of us, that we recognize when we see it, and evil, when we cringe at its sight. I say, did it not say so in the holy books of the Jews and the first century Christians, that we are God??? So, let us be brave enough to claim that, and make it a better world. So why Jesus? Because in that image of a Jesus of the Gospels, we see in ourselves the possibilities of goodness, of a better world, of that one that comes! So be it.

  6. Avatar
    FrancisDunn  January 23, 2013

    Dr Ehrman: In the Catholic stations of the cross, Jesus supposedly said “weep not for me but for your children” to some women who were watching; and “my god why have you forsaken me”. Could it be he new as he was facing his death his mission, as he perceived it, was a failure?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  January 24, 2013

      These are two sayings of Jesus from the Gospels, in the Passion narrative. The first is from Luke (and not in the other Gospels), the second is from Mark (and Matthew) but is not in Luke. In my view, these different Gospels portray Jesus’ attitude toward his coming death in different ways, but none of them, in my judgment, portray Jesus as thinking that his mission had failed. I talk a bit about the different portrayals in my book Jesus Interrupted.

      • Avatar
        FrancisDunn  January 24, 2013

        Thank you. I have the book and reading it this evening

  7. Avatar
    janet  January 23, 2013

    Your writing causes one to think. I believe a stumbling block is ” historical” Jesus. It’s also good to see you don’t dismiss your christian upbringing. The word will not be made void. Even though christianity is not a tradition. It is a relationship with Christ in You.

    • Avatar
      janet  January 23, 2013

      And I’m sorry you never saw christianity as a relationship, or active and alive Jesus, within his living disciples/saints. My christian upbringing was also a hindrance to my faith and reality of who Jesus and christians really were. I also thought I had a relationship with Christ , when in fact I was not really alive, or had a new life in Christ. It has been a few years since my life changed through the power of Jesus and His Holy Spirit. It’s a process and God’s timing is not “our timing”. However, I do that I know, that I would never go back to that former life. Christianity is not just a lifestyle , it’s everything. If you define christianity as Christ in you. Or I’m in Christ , a partaker of the Holy. Which can not get any better, until I meet him face to face of course. I pray the same for you , because you I believe would be a wonderful instrument in God’s grace.

  8. Avatar
    janet  January 23, 2013

    About implementing ideals and doing as Jesus did: that’s not what Jesus was about. “None is good but God” It’s not about “trying” to be like Jesus. It’s about not having a hard heart and opening , through prayer sublimation to be in tune. It’s by some discipline in these areas that we can have an open heart and mind to let Jesus commune. However, Jesus makes friends with us, we don’t make friends with Him. That’s also why that WWJD braclets are can have the possibility of being dangerous. They keep us from the truth that without the Holy Spirit , which is a gift. NOt by our own merit or “doing” , but by the grace of God. So it’s not always about asking what would Jesus do and follow that. It’s a heart, spirit matter, Spirit of God dwelling inside us. And all those things you listed at the end of your post are wonderful. However, what are you being good for the sake of being good? Or because you vision a perfect world? Which I’m not sure your definition of perfect is correct? Or if you are putting it above biblical definitions of perfect. If we all follow your vision, would that be you claiming to be God?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  January 24, 2013

      No, I’m certainly not claiming to be God. I don’t believe in God. But I do think we can make this world a better place, and surely on that particular point you and I can have common ground, and so ought to do our best to make it happen.

      • Avatar
        FrancisDunn  January 24, 2013

        Thank you…I have the book and I am beginning it this evening

      • Avatar
        gonzalogandia  January 24, 2013

        That is probably the most diplomatic answer I’ve ever heard to an incomprehensible tirade…and I’ve read it twice. Congrats!

      • Avatar
        janet  February 2, 2013

        So we “ought” to make this world a better place? Why? Just wondering what your reasoning is….
        I can not make this world a better place, and if I make anything better, it’s because of God working through me for His glory, not mine and not for “this world”.

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  February 3, 2013

          I think part of being human is wanting the best for other humans, and that people who don’t think so are less than human. Why do I think that? It’s part of being human! If you think God is the one doing it through you, then you and I obviously disagree. I think people can indeed be good and decent.

          • Avatar
            janet  February 5, 2013

            Where is your proof that humans wanting the best for other humans is part of being human? And just because people do “good” things does that mean they are “good”? Do we really know another humans heart or motivations? So how do we know why they are doing their “good” deeds? But yes, we do disagree and I believe the bible disagrees that people are good and decent. We are made in the image of God, however we are all sinners and in need of a savior.

          • Bart Ehrman
            Bart Ehrman  February 5, 2013

            I don’t think I need “proof”! It’s what I believe, based on my experience.

          • Avatar
            janet  February 6, 2013

            And so on the same notion, why are some not good and decent?

          • Bart Ehrman
            Bart Ehrman  February 6, 2013

            Because people can also be rotten.

          • Avatar
            janet  February 7, 2013

            Why do you suppose they are rotten?

          • Bart Ehrman
            Bart Ehrman  February 7, 2013

            BEcause they do rotten things!

    • bchungdmd
      bchungdmd  January 24, 2013

      Janet, let me be crazy, but why are you afraid to be God? If the germanic word for God s good, that is gott, why then are you afraid to be God? Does not say so anywhere in the holy Writ that Ye are God(s)? Original text does not differentiate one God/Elohim from another. Why is it that it s OK that we can create God in our image and after our likeness, and let them have dominion over the seas, the skies and the earth, and we are afraid to be that one God? Have the courage to renounce the idolatrous biblicism, and let God worship you? Did not say anywhere in the bible that why call me good? Let God take notice of all of us we are trying to be good and let them worship us?!

  9. Avatar
    Dallas  January 23, 2013

    That will preach; secular or religious.

  10. Avatar
    Adam  January 23, 2013

    You note that there are things you celebrate and don’t celebrate about Christianity. I think some of your readers may be surprised that there are things you celebrate about Christianity as a humanist and agnostic/atheist. You mentioned in a past post that you celebrate the Christmas story. And also you mentioned one thing you don’t celebrate about Christianity is Christian fundamentalism. Just a suggestion for a series of posts..”What I celebrate about Christianity”

  11. Avatar
    wisemenwatch  January 23, 2013

    When I read your previous post “Answer to My Objections on Demythologizing” I immediately thought “tradition” and was stunned to see that that was your answer.

    I didn’t post my answer “tradition” because you had already posted this by the time I read the question; but also because it led me to think of the scripture “Making the word of God of none effect through your tradition, which ye have delivered: and many such like things do ye.” Mark 7:13.

    So there’s the fundamentalist comeback that you can expect, which no doubt you do. And if anyone has succeeded in making the “Word of God” of none effect…well it seems like you have fallen into the trap that has been set.

    (BTW, Jesus was wrong. EVERYONE should wash their hands before eating – what goes into you can indeed defile you.)

  12. Avatar
    wisemenwatch  January 23, 2013

    “I love to read 19th century novels, mainly because I do indeed find their moral lessons worthy of learning and because I find that they ennoble my spirit and make me want to be a better person, whether I’m reading Austen, the Bronte sisters (all three!), Dickens, Thackeray, Eliot, Hugo, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, or – well, pick your great author! ”

    Maybe this is lame, but another answer I had considered for “Answer to My Objections on Demythologizing” was “because the Bible is foundational to so much modern Western literature, that if you are not familiar with it, you miss knowing of that meaning or level”.

    My high school English teacher taught “Moby Dick” to every senior class (and every year was going to be the last one that had to suffer this). He wanted us to recognize and read the novel on different “levels”.

    He is the same teacher who told me to “read it again in 10 years”, when I told him that I had read Wuthering Heights and did not get it. I did read it again in 10 years, and a third time…I still don’t get it. Is it because I am presumed to know something that the author does not flatly state? Am I to read not just what the author says, but also between the lines?

    I have heard the same pertaining to the Bible and Jesus; that it was meant to be read on different levels, that this is rabbinic tradition, and that the literal level is considered the lowest level. For instance, the end of this world is within the near future, it will take us by surprise, and we should be prepared for judgement. This is universally applicable because it will happen to everyone when they die, no matter what time period they live in, and we all know that someday soon, we will die.

    Do you believe that the Bible was written to be read on different levels, or do so-called deeper meanings just not pertain to the “historical” Jesus – the topic under study? Are deeper meanings and levels in the Bible of our own making or do they really exist?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  January 24, 2013

      I think deeper levels exist in *all* literature, if you are skilled enough to find them, the Bible included.

      • Avatar
        wisemenwatch  January 24, 2013

        I’ve read so many, many books, including some of the Brontes and Dickens, Moby Dick twice. I must be a product of my environment and time, but I just can’t see their greatness.

        The books that have impressed me most, that I find I remember after 20 years, are those by James Michener. I don’t think I was yet 40 when I read The Source, and it was the beginning of the end of Christianity for me, something just cracked.

        The first one was Centenniel (loved), then Texas (rocked), The Source (life-changing), Hawaii (very good), The Covenant and Alaska. Someday, maybe if I ever get to retire, I’ll get to a couple more of them. One thing is for certain, I never have to go back and read them again to “get it”. Michener novels educate and entertain me simutaneously; therefore, not a waste of time – more like a vacation.

  13. Avatar
    Christian  January 23, 2013

    Liberation theology?

    By the way, I don’t think you can go from Jesus to “peace” (the end of the world supposes the opposite), as you can’t use Jesus to build family values. I have written about this. Turning the other cheek is a rather bad moral behaviour. Forbidding divorce? A thought of lust and bang! you just committed adultery? (A thought…) I seriously doubt that homosexual marriage wouId have been approved by Jesus. Finally, Jesus was not pro-charity: he was pro-God and insisted that his followers abandon all economic pursuits and wealth. He didn’t work hard to feed the poor: God did (one or twice). He was ethnocentric–to put it mildly.

    It is not difficult to go on and on to show that Jesus morality does not suit our times. I think you are cherrypicking the few good moral teachings that any humanist can advocate today, based on pre-Christian (Epicurus, Lucrecius, the Stoics etc.) or post-Christian grounds (Chamfort, Nietzche etc.). Even unrelated rats help each other out of cages…

  14. Avatar
    agnossi  January 23, 2013

    Agree.
    And I believe that it is right for you to show that to elevate any individual to “God” status is a mistake. As has been said, the Bible is man made. That the Bible gets it’s morals and ethics from us, not the other way around.
    I believe that you do us all a great service when you demythologize Jesus (and Paul).
    I’ve always wondered what Paul would have thought had he realized that his writings were going to be elevated to the level of “Holy Scripture”.
    For Jesus to have taught that we ought be compassionate to others is a good moral teaching, but for Jesus, or anyone else to say (and I’m not sure that Jesus ever said) that we ought to be compassionate to others lest we be tortured forever in some supernatural “Hell” – that would be, and is, an immoral teaching.
    I believe that monotheism and the theocratic mindset that follows from it to be the source of many of the problems that we’ve had in the past and continue to struggle with today. Orwell pointed out that all political dictatorships are theocratic in nature. For Jesus and the Jews it was the Roman Empire. For us it is radical Islam and Multinational Corporations.
    Thank you, Professor Ehrman.

  15. Avatar
    toddfrederick  January 23, 2013

    I had to sleep on this. For me, as the morning dawns, there is no hope. Just another day of days and days and days. We are born, we live, we die. Jesus is dead, scripture is a lie, there is no god, utopia is a fool’s dream. Life has no meaning. Our fate is the grave.

  16. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  January 23, 2013

    Thanks once again for your willingness to share so much about yourself. It is a ground with which I am quite familiar. How about just a world where so many do not think that global warming is just a “hoax” propagated by liberals and where textual and historical criticism of the Bible are considered to be useful endeavors rather than products of the devil ?

  17. Avatar
    tcc  January 23, 2013

    What’s interesting is, there’s actually a philosophy called Christian Atheism–where you don’t believe in any of the dogmas, but you believe in Jesus’ message. Robert M. Price and Slajoj Zizek both call themselves Christian atheists.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christian_atheism

  18. Avatar
    Jim  January 23, 2013

    To me an important consideration of the Jewish apocalyptic view (versus just ethics alone) includes the additional component of future hope. Hope built on Jesus’ apocalyptic view as in compassionate (as opposed to Johnny Edwards style) Christianity, at least in theory, includes a hope for all those who have suffered in past history, are suffering now and those who will suffer in the future. There is something to be said about a hope in a future reboot into a new operating system where those who have known only suffering/injustice in this human life will have a future opportunity for a better existence.

    Ethics as a stand-alone are indeed valuable, and maybe this idea of hope is just a fairy tale wish. I sometimes wonder if there ever is a future worldwide disaster (man-made and/or natural) and this planet sits lifeless across the eons of future time, what real difference would it have made if I was an asshole or not. For me the idea of a future hope is the last hurdle I need to cross to become a full time agnostic. I already have the part of being a big asshole down well. 🙂

  19. Avatar
    DMiller5842  January 24, 2013

    You said “At the same time, I myself have a vision of a perfect world, the world that I would like there to be. It’s a lot like the world Jesus imagined, but without a messiah to rule it and without God to bring it in. It too is a world without poverty and homelessness and oppression and injustice and greed and backstabbing and violence and hatred and war; a world where people who suffer from natural disasters receive fast and sufficient relief; a world where climate change is brought under control, where all people – whether gay, straight, black, white, young, old – have equal rights. I don’t think this world will ever come, but I believe in it. And if I imitate the teachings of Jesus, I will strive for it. I will work to feed the hungry and house the homeless, I will work for peace and justice; I will advocate for fairness and for the impoverished and oppressed and slighted; I will visit the sick and lonely; I will push for policies that avoid and prevent war and that do not destroy the planet. And so on and on. This would be Jesus’ ethic transposed into a 21st century key. And I guess at the end of the day, it’s an ethic I believe in.”

    Same ethic I believe in too — completely independent of any belief in Jesus and without need for any translation of his ethics to the modern world.

  20. Avatar
    ecbrown88  January 24, 2013

    I don’t think global warming is a hoax but I’m certainly not so sure that it is human-generated, or if it is, that’s necessarily a bad thing, or if it is a bad thing, if we could do anything about it, or if we can do something about it, the effort and economy diverted to that cause might starve other progress that would otherwise much better ameliorate the effects of such warming (such as a world economy so vibrant and prosperous that malaria is easily eliminated, now-poor countries are unpoluted (like rich countries enjoy today, and the poorest equatorial village today is so rich in quality of life terms that air-condition or relocation are readily available options to all. Just saying, we have more than only two choices for our response.

    I do think many of the most devoted alarmists of this phenomenon sound an awful lot like apocalyptic preachers, certain that Mother Earth is about to come in her Glory to punish mankind for its sin. I believe there is an innate instinct to seek some version of a higher authority, and if it is not a Religion then many turn to “religion”.

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