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Why Differences and Discrepancies Matter Theologically/Religiously

On Wednesday I will be having a public debate with Mike Licona at Kennesaw State University on the topic: “Are the Gospels Historically Reliable.”  This is something I’ve thought long and hard about for my entire adult life, and so has he.  But we disagree, heartily.  It should be a lively and interesting debate.

Just now I was looking through the ancient history of the blog, and I ran across this post where I discuss the issue from a different perspective (different from what I usually say) — one in which I claim that it is *helpful* for Christians to realize that the Gospels have discrepancies.   Interesting thought, I think, and think I thought!

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In my two previous posts I’ve been trying to explain that the historical-critical view of the Gospels, in which they are recognized not always to represent historically accurate information about Jesus, is not necessarily a view that “trashes” them.  Instead, it is a view that tries to understand what they really are instead of insisting that they are something else.   Accepting them for what they are is surely a good thing; making them into something they are not can’t be good.

In this post I want to do something highly unusual for me.  I want to explain, for those of your who are Christians (or for anyone else who is interested), why this critical view of the Gospels is in fact *theologically* valuable, far more theologically value than a view that would insist that the Gospels have no discrepancies between them or errors of any kind, but are historically accurate accounts of what happened in the life of Jesus.

When I was a Christian, once  I came to the conclusion that the Gospels in fact are full of contradictions and discrepancies and historical inaccuracies– after many years of research – I also came to realize that this understanding was remarkably fruitful from a theological point of view.

If Mark and Luke, for example, have different ways of telling the same story, then they each want to emphasize and teach something that is different (not the same).  The discrepancies tell you what each one wants to teach.  If you’re not a fundamentalist who cares only that the Gospels are historically accurate, and if you have any literary sensitivity at all, if you have any sense that “what really happened” is not the only or even the most important thing, if you have any grasp on the reality that great literature can teach important lessons (even if it contains material that didn’t happen) – then recognizing what each Gospel is trying to teach enables you to…

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Why Discrepancies Matter for Interpretation
Small Differences that Make a Difference

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Comments

  1. JGonzalezGUS  February 16, 2018

    Dr. Ehrman, In one of those debates you mention, have you asked the question whether the other person believes in the historical reliability of the Old Testament? Does he believe in the 7-day creation or in all those animals fitting into Noah’s ark? If not, what makes the NT different in that respect? Are the NT writers ‘holier’ than the OT writers? Just curious.
    Regards,
    Jose

    • Bart
      Bart  February 16, 2018

      Some of my debate opponents think absolutely that. Others are more flexible.

    • AnotherBart  February 16, 2018

      I, myself, ascribe to the most ‘conservative’ authorship dates of the NT (Aramaic Matthew=41 C.E.), but have, since high school (30 years ago), dismissed all forms of ‘creation science’ as pseudoscience.

      My ‘conservative’ dating of the Synoptics (Matt=41, Mark=45, Luke=51-55 & 57-59) is a recent conclusion, about 12 months ago.

  2. Iskander Robertson  February 16, 2018

    What was the reason for john to tell his readers that they need to consume a sacrificed human and link it with eternal life ? John has gone beyond remembering a sacrifice, he wants one to actually consume the sacrificed item in their minds to draw closer to god and have eternal life. I don’t get it though.

    • Bart
      Bart  February 16, 2018

      It’s tied to his view of the Christian eucharist, I suppose.

  3. jbskq5  February 16, 2018

    I understand your reasoning and I’m personally glad that you let believers have this “escape hatch” so to speak; it makes your writing more palatable to fundamentalists and those who are questioning those underpinnings. As an occasionally anti-theist agnostic myself, I appreciate the opportunity that this tone provides to distribute your work to those people. However, as I’m sure Mr. Licona will point out as he has before, I just don’t see how one can intellectually consent to something that is not actually true. Maybe it’s because I was raised fundamentalist myself. But there IS a real difference between something being literally, historically true and “true” in a literary sense. If Jesus didn’t die for our sins and come back to life, as Paul points out, the rest hardly matters.

    I know that we’re probably at least mostly on the same page, and I wouldn’t have you come down any harder on that line. It just doesn’t make sense to me to consider Mark, Matthew, or John’s theology any more true than Muhammed’s, or JK Rowling’s, or CS Lewis’. That’s the other side of the coin that I wish more people from the religiously liberal side could explain adequately.

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    • Bart
      Bart  February 16, 2018

      Right! I’m not saying that I personally think they are “true.” I’m saying that seeing the differences can help a reader better understand the theological truth they are trying to convey. Believers will probably find these truths true, but before you can judge if they are true or not, you have to know what they are!

      • HistoricalChristianity  February 16, 2018

        That’s probably the best critique of philosophy (including religion, a subset): Only some truths are true.

      • talmoore
        talmoore  February 16, 2018

        If you’re intention is to uncover some truths about the human condition, then, absolutely, delve into the details of scripture as much as you want, but don’t think that just because scripture can tell us something about us that means that everything in it is absolutely true. I don’t believe one word of the Mahabharata happened as written, but I can still read it as a window into humanity and take from it certain universal truths about us.

        • Bart
          Bart  February 18, 2018

          I’m not sure whom you’re arguing against!

          • talmoore
            talmoore  February 19, 2018

            I’m mainly arguing against folks like Reza Aslan, who are wont to say things to the effect of: “Scripture is not meant to tell facts; it’s meant to tell truths.”

      • Telling
        Telling  February 16, 2018

        Bart, you have reasonably proved that the gospels are not reliable historical documents. More, you’ve relegated the centerpiece of Christianity — the Crucifixion story — to the trash bin. If you believe, as you say, the dogs ate Jesus’ bones and that Jesus had just a tiny following and Pontius Pilate didn’t even know who he was, then we have a very much different gospel, or more properly, no gospel. And I think we an say you’ve written your own gospel (using your words).

        I think your argument is plausible, but is subjective. I will explain.

        You say historians cannot factor in miracles, because they are not reproducible and seldom happen in history. But they do happen, and yet by their very nature are not reproducible. I can give you an example of extreme coincidences, which very occasionally happen in many peoples lives, examples like visiting a city you’ve never visited before and literally bumping into an old friend, on the sidewalk, who you haven’t seen in years who just happens to be in that same city in that very same place for some purpose, where otherwise he would have never been there either. I’ve had this happen, one extreme and impossible one, and a handful of near unbelievable others on occasion. And I have a couple of friends with similar impossible stories. These are, in a sense, not unlike miracles. But having a metaphysical understanding, I know that events build up internally and such events might easily happen as our subconscious minds plan out such seemingly impossible happenings, entirely hidden from our conscious minds. No miracle at all. Take this farther, to a real “miracle” as in the bible, and it is of similar nature, our inner imaginations trumping the outer world, our thoughts literally creating our reality.

        The words of Jesus: if you truly believe, it will happen, such teaching are no mystery to the mystic.

        If Jesus was indeed an elevated entity bringing metaphysical understanding to to a civilization that had lost that information, then he might very well have been known and fear by Rome, and Pilate might have known full well who he was, and full well wanted him dead.

        And here I’d like to re-present the metaphysical Jane Roberts/Seth material, consistent with the story of the Crucifixion as told in the Koran, a fifth gospel story, lets call it the Gospel of Thomas, that tells of the Kingdom of God being here in our presence (but people don’t see it) — no crucifixion story needed, it’s a foolish story, has no sense in it. This fifth gospel says Jesus wasn’t crucified, a “would-be” savior was crucified and mis-identified as Jesus. Jesus then appeared to no less than 500 witnesses, some of whom thought he had risen from the dead, others knowing the truth. Continuing with his mission was becoming an embarrassment, an elevated entity he merely willed himself away, entering the “kingdom” through a change in mental focus, seen as an ascension by those observing.

        Historians cannot go there, of course, yet they make judgements about the West’s one great metaphysical book and foundation of the West after Rome.

        To answer your question: what differences and discrepancies matter? It’s a good question.

        • Iskander Robertson  February 19, 2018

          the koran doesn’t actually say that a lookalike appeared as jesus, the koran can be interpreted to mean that the crucifixion of jesus was a rumour which “appeared” in the minds of those who were spreading the rumour.

          Dr Bart Ehrman says that the disciples ran away to Galilee and it seems that the earliest APPEARANCES were 70 miles away in Galilee.

          • Telling
            Telling  February 20, 2018

            Iskander,

            Here’s a translation of the Koran:
            That they said [in boast], “We killed Christ Jesus the son of Mary, the Messenger of Allah,” but they killed him not, nor crucified him. Only a likeness of that was shown to them. And those who differ therein are full of doubts, with no [certain] knowledge. But only conjecture to follow, for of a surety they killed him not (Surat Al-Nisa 4:157).(thespiritofislam.com)

            It is the Jane Roberts/Seth material, a metaphysical book, conveyed by an entity beyond the grave, that says another man was identified as Jesus and crucified. I don’t claim to be an expert on Koran interpretation. I believe I said the Koran is consistent with the Seth information, which I think is clearly true. Seth does say the crucifixion was a powerful psychic mass event happening in the imagination, fueled by another man physically crucified and thought to have been Jesus.

      • jbragg1977  February 17, 2018

        Star Wars.

      • SidDhartha1953  February 19, 2018

        I think it’s in your new book: we of the post enlightenment era tend to think of all truth as analytical, like a syllogism. (I’m putting words in your pen – this is how I understand what I read) Traditional religious truth confuses or frustrates us because it is analogical – like a parable. I tend to approach conundrums analogically and it makes explaining what I’m thinking difficult at times.

    • Telling
      Telling  February 17, 2018

      jbskq5,

      Christians tell me that without a resurrection there is no Christianity. But I picked up the Bible as a young man in desperation, due to unfortunate things in my life at the time, and I found the New Testament to be comforting, it was the start of my process of regaining hope. I’m sure this is true of many people. I, at that time, assumed the Crucifixion story was true, but it was of no actual value to me, just something that was there. It wouldn’t have mattered if there had been no Crucifixion story, it was the words of Jesus, the teachings, the message of hope, that I found helpful. Really, the last thing I would have wanted back then was to have eternal life, life was bad enough as it was, at least someday that would end, or so I thought.

      And there is no message of salvation through the Cross in the words of Jesus, that was from Paul.

  4. talmoore
    talmoore  February 16, 2018

    Dr. Ehrman, I work with mathematical models. And one of the things you get used to with mathematical models is extrapolating and predicting data outside those models. Normally this is done by finding a trend in the numbers, such as finding a linear regression or some other equation that allows you to pull the signal from the noise. Unfortunately, since I’m unable to post graphics here, I’ll have to do my best to explain this idea verbally. For instance, imagine we find data that conveniently progresses from 4 to 5 to 6 to 7. Well, we can then use that trend to predict the next values in the series: 8, 9, 10, etc. But we can also use that trend to work backwards in the series, to a starting value, a starting point, say: 3, 2, 1, 0. Now, all this may seem highly arcane and unrelated to the topic at hand, but please read on and you’ll see where I’m going with this.

    Let us take the gospel texts (and their components) as a time series. That is, imagine we have an x-axis, numbered, say, from year 0 CE at the origin to year 100 and beyond. And then let us place theoretical years of composition for the texts along that axis. For example, I would place component parts of Mark around the year 35. I would then place the first version of Q around 45. Ur-Mark (the hypothetical first written edition of Mark) somewhere around the year 55. Then Ur-Matthew, the first version of Matthew, somewhere around 67. Then Luke-Acts around 69. Then the final version of Mark — the one we have more or less today — around 75. The Signs Gospel components of John around 80. Then the final version of Matthew — as we have it more or less today — around the year 85. Then, finally, John around 90.

    So when we follow this trend line, what do we see? Well, we see something that you, Dr. Ehrman, have pointed out on a regular basis. That is, we see that with each successive “version” of the story the Jews become more guilty and Pilate becomes less guilty. If we extrapolate forwards from this trend, indeed, the Jews become more and more guilty, to the point of being servants of Satan himself, while Pilate becomes less and less guilty, to the point of actually being canonized by the church. But if we work our way backwards on the trend line, we can assume that the Jews become less and less guilty and Pilate becomes more and more guilty, to the point where it’s clear that Pilate willingly — possibly enthusiastically — had Jesus crucified, and the Jews were, at worst, indifferent to Jesus’ execution. (And it was probably this indifference which hurt Jesus’ disciples the most.)

    So where am I going with this? Well, we can do this same analysis with many other trends within the gospel texts. You mention Jesus’ attitude on his way to the cross. Along the timeline, Jesus becomes progressively less concerned about his plight. Indeed, by the time we get to John, Jesus is almost relishing his fate. So if we extrapolate backwards, we can safely assume that the very first version of the gospel account, the one we find in Mark, has Jesus pleading with God to spare him. But there’s also something embedded within this trend. We also see Jesus becoming more and more knowledgeable about his fate, with more and more detail within each successive text. In Mark, Jesus just knows that he has to die. (As I’ve mentioned before, I call this the Catastrophe component, such as the various parables in which Jesus appears to be predicting his death.) By the time we get to John, Jesus knows he has to die, and resurrect, and that his death and resurrection is necessary for the salvation of all humanity — yada, yada, yada — Jesus is practically omniscient at this point. Well, if we extrapolate backwards along that trend, we can safely assume that there was a point where Jesus’ disciples had to seriously consider whether Jesus — who they perceived as a prophet — knew that he was going to be crucified. That is, at point 0 on our graph, our ad hoc linear regression model suggests that: A) Pilate was perfectly willing to crucify Jesus, B) the Jews, in general, didn’t really care either way whether Jesus was crucified, C) Jesus was seriously dismayed about going to his death, and D) Jesus was just as shocked and surprised by his arrest and crucifixion as everyone else was.

    The same analysis can be done with other trends, such as christological matters (as you have done in How Jesus Became God), eschatological matters, biographical matters, you name it. Too many to get into here.

    • HistoricalChristianity  February 19, 2018

      You don’t need to choose implausibly early dates to observe those trends.

      A Zealot doesn’t need to be a rocket scientist or even mystical to predict his own violent death. If you wanted to think of Jesus as a Zealot, you could find plenty in the narratives to identify with.

      • talmoore
        talmoore  February 20, 2018

        I don’t think the real, historical Jesus predicted his own death. And in order to not give Bart another mini-essay to review, I’ll give my reasons for thinking so in brief, bulleted form.
        ~ Jesus and his movement clearly took up John the Baptist’s message, which was: Return to our God, the God of Israel (now!) and be saved (now!) or be obliterated (now!). Why the urgency if Jesus et al. didn’t believe the Judgment wasn’t coming at any moment?
        ~ If Jesus et al. believed the Judgment was coming at any moment, why would he have to die…only to return later?
        ~ Why would Jesus do something so stupid as to walk into Roman controlled Jerusalem and proclaim his rulership, unless he really believed God’s holy host was coming to destroy the Romans anyway?
        ~ Answer: Jesus really did believe Judgment Day was coming right then, so he had no fear of recklessly proclaiming the destruction of the Romans and their Jewish allies, and possibly even the Temple itself, right there in Jerusalem — without fear of them! — and so the thought that he might be risking his own life by doing so was absurd to him in light of his strongly held eschatological conviction.

        • HistoricalChristianity  February 27, 2018

          The synoptic authors didn’t think Jesus was a Zealot. But they wrote the stories to show why it was plausible for someone to think that. Thus it was plausible that people would accuse him of that. But then he would be acquitted of those charges, proving he really wasn’t a Zealot.

          A Zealot knew he could be killed for his words and actions, but thought the reward (a politically independent Israel) was worth the risk.

        • HistoricalChristianity  February 27, 2018

          Also, if part of the story isn’t plausible, blame the author, not Jesus.

  5. fishician  February 16, 2018

    I think the first book I read on this topic was Gary Wills’ What The Gospels Meant, before I started reading your books, which further elaborated on this idea. It really was enlightening and liberating to realize that you can learn more by taking each gospel for what it says rather than doing contortions to mesh them together, whether you’re just trying to understand them historically and as literature or as theology. Look forward to your post on the theological aspects.

  6. Silver  February 16, 2018

    I have always accepted, unthinkingly, the view that Jesus died for OUR sins, taking our punishment on himself. On reflection this does not appear to fit well with our present-day notions of justice and certainly seems not to figure in the British legal system. I can think of a ‘whipping boy’ from the past (referring to a boy who was educated with a prince and who received punishment for any faults committed by the prince) but this idea today seems manifestly unfair.
    This leads me to ask, was the concept of penal substitution seen as acceptable/normal in the time of Jesus or would it have been considered unjust?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 18, 2018

      For a modern analogy it would be like someone else paying your fine for you. But in the ancient world, yes, sometimes an animal sacrifice was seen as a “substitute”

  7. hmltonius  February 16, 2018

    I’ve heard the H20 analogy but you could forgive water for not having consciousness enough to be aware of itself but, even if it did, it wouldn’t exist in two states at once to carry on a conversation. Did Jesus not know he was God and if not, why not?

    When I was young I guess I thought God kept this vital piece of information from Jesus as some sort of Free Will Test but, if not Jesus, surely “God” knew Jesus was himself. Why go through it at all? Is this where it becomes a “Mystery” and we should humble ourselves, stop asking smart$#@ questions and look toward the theologians who can grasp these nuanced understandings with a straight face? I’m serious.

    • Bart
      Bart  February 18, 2018

      Yes, these are perplexing theological questions. Since I’m not a theologian, I’m not the one to ask!

    • SidDhartha1953  February 19, 2018

      Actually, my 9th grade physical science teacher taught us that a glass of water exists in all 3 states simultaneously. It’s just that the overwhelming preponderance of liquid over the odd crystal or gas molecule makes the odd outliers negligible. We treat the whole glassful as liquid.

      • Eric  February 23, 2018

        Also, all three states exist at a specific combination of pressure and temperature, which is called the substance’s “triple point”. For water, this is at 0.01 degree Celsius (a temperature reached regulatory here in Chicago) and a pressure of 0.06 atmospheres (a pressure available at an altitude of about 21,000 ft….on Mars…where 0 degrees C is a rarity.).

        Not the first time I’ve toyed with the concept of triple points to try to come up with an analogy for a trinity. Thanks for the reminder!

    • Iskander Robertson  February 19, 2018

      if the CONSCIOUS person is suppose to be the divine, then how is it possible that SAME conscious person PLUGS itself into non-divine and has full experiential knowledge of it WITHOUT passing the experience to the SAME DIVINE person?#

      imagine a human tells another human that he is having full experience of swimming in a fish tank because he is ACTUALLY fully gold fish. it only makes logical sense that the gold fish’ “person” is PASSING on experience to the human person.

  8. doug  February 16, 2018

    Thanks for putting honesty first in your approach to writing. None of us is perfect, but it’s frustrating to read something by a writer who starts with his/her conclusion and works backward, twisting and cherry-picking the evidence to try to make it support their conclusion, while ignoring or downplaying the evidence that goes against their conclusion.

    • HistoricalChristianity  February 19, 2018

      A scientist examines all available evidence with a purpose of discovering truth. A theologian is more like a defense attorney, picking evidence that supports his client, then hiding, discrediting, or ignoring the rest.

  9. Liam Foley
    Liam Foley  February 16, 2018

    Do you have any sense of when the practice of meshing the gospels together to form a large one, which is what Christians told me to do to get the “big picture,” began? Since the gospels were written many decades apart from one another, and even after they were all written I don’t think all the communities had access to them all as we do today, so the need to mesh them together was not always there.

    The fact that each gospel tells a different story to some extent, it does seem to reason that each author had an agenda, or message, to communicate beyond telling the story of the life of Jesus has his teachings and message. Do we know what the initial intent, message, the authors had when their gospels were written?

  10. Iskander Robertson  February 16, 2018

    Marks Jesus says “not what I want but what you want”

    But then why is he begging god to do one of his possibilities and that is to save him from dying ?

    Since Jesus is begging God more than one time to save him, then it means that Jesus was reluctant to die. Compare to john, in the beginning of john, Jesus is the lamb who takes away sins and right in the end, Jesus does not even pray, he is portrayed as a willinging person.

    If I was reluctant to bring a sheep to the temple and begged god to save it, then I would have gone against gods ritualistic demands.

    if Jesus has become reluctant, then his reluctance has made him go against gods ritualistic demands which would imply that Jesus sinned. John anticipated this and he completely removed the prayer and reluctance

    • HistoricalChristianity  February 19, 2018

      I suspect it’s the author’s way of saying there was no other way.

    • godspell  February 22, 2018

      Mark’s Jesus is a human being, with doubts and fears.

      He knows more than the others, but not everything. Enough to know he’s putting himself in the way of a very painful death.

      I’d assume Jesus did, in fact, have qualms about the course he was on. Who wouldn’t? Mark couldn’t be privy to exactly what Jesus said, but as a gifted storyteller, he could put himself in that position.

      Christians of Mark’s time often met with persecution. So this is a powerful statement. If even Jesus had doubts, fears, then your doubts and fears don’t mean your faith isn’t real. It just means you’re not perfect. But Jesus submitted himself to God’s will, and even if Mark’s original gospel didn’t end with the resurrection, Christians know what happened afterwards. It’s the most central tenet of Christian belief.

      Mark likes nuance.

      It’s still a very powerful story. People still face persecution for what they believe. And people still have doubts and fears about how they’ll face up to that.

  11. bcdwa288  February 16, 2018

    I’m sure you are aware of it but there is a descripancy that made it into our modern bible versions that I have not heard you mention. The phrase “without a cause'” in Matthew 5:22 (KJV) completely changes the meaning of the verse from that of NRSV>
    Matt 5:22 (NRSV): “But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.”
    Matt 5:22 (KJV): “But I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother WITHOUT A CAUSE shall be in danger of the judgment: and whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council: but whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire. “

  12. godspell  February 16, 2018

    Mark’s Jesus is clearly a human being, with doubts and fears, remarkable as the feats he performs are (though no more so than those of Moses or Elijah.)

    Mark doesn’t mention the source of Jesus’ lament. He merely makes it clear Jesus spoke in Aramaic, and translates for those who don’t understand that language. He does not attempt to put it in scriptural context. Even today, most Christians don’t make the connection to the Old Testament psalm–those who are into bible studies, sure, but that’s not most Christians. I grew up hearing that every Easter, and nobody ever told me it was from the Old Testament.

    Would Mark have necessarily known the Old Testament verse?

    If he did, would he have expected his readers who were not devout literate Jews to know it?

    I fully agree, whether these are Jesus’ actual words, or Mark’s interpolation, the overall effect is intended to be despairing, anguished. Because to Mark, Jesus was a man.

    • Bart
      Bart  February 18, 2018

      Great questions!

      • godspell  February 19, 2018

        I continue to think Mark was influenced by Greek tragedy. And in Greek tragedy, you see figures out of myth, given human passions, doubts, motivations. They suffer terrible fates, and they rail against that fate, but there is something noble and transfigurational in their suffering–think of Antigone. Arguably a worse fate than crucifixion.

        Mark wants that kind of conflict, that kind of catharsis, in his account based on what he’s learned about this man he never met. Just as Oedipus or Orestes may protest against their fate, Jesus will too. But his God is of a different order than those of the Greek heroes, and he will be redeemed differently.

        Though Oedipus at Colonus might be said to prefigure the original end of Mark’s Gospel, wouldn’t you say? There as well, the supreme moment happens offstage.

    • HistoricalChristianity  February 19, 2018

      Since Dr. Ehrman didn’t answer, I’ll toss in my thoughts.

      The author of Mark was Greek, and likely wouldn’t be familiar with Tanakh. But he was collecting stories and legends for his bios narrative. To gain respect as an ancient religion (and perhaps even religio licita legal protection), Christians told stories about Jesus to look like they were fulfillments of OT prophecy. Without this one, he would not have needed to invent the census / registration to explain why Jesus of Nazareth would have been born in Bethlehem.

      The synoptics also tried to explain why no one thought Jesus was a god while he was alive on earth.

      Few readers of Mark were Jews. But all the authors wrote inclusively. If you were a Jew, you’d probably recognize this. If not, you have plenty of other things in the gospels to identify with.

      • godspell  February 22, 2018

        Mark says nothing about Bethlehem, or anything else relating to Jesus’ birth. That’s in Matthew and Luke. Mark clearly sees no problem with Jesus being from Galilee, most likely because he wasn’t Jewish, and didn’t have those beliefs about where the Messiah would come from, and it goes with his general vision of Jesus, as somebody who people just didn’t know who he was. Which would be a hard point to make if his birth was so incredibly significant, attended to by all these portents and wise men and Shepherds and Angels and Stars and slaughters of innocents.

        Mark just wants Jesus to appear out of nowhere. You know, like Clint Eastwood in one of those spaghetti westerns he used to make. He’s got a name, but not much else.

        Bart didn’t answer the question because there’s a lot we just can’t know about who Mark was, what he knew, and who he was writing his gospel for.

        It is possible that earlier Christians put those words in Jesus’ mouth, to make some kind of scriptural point, and Mark was just putting that in there. However, you’d think then that he’d explain it, as he explains what the words mean.

        My own personal opinion remains that Jesus really said this, because it’s just hard for me to believe Christians would have put those words in his mouth. The disciples weren’t there when he died, but I will just bet you some of the women who followed him were braver–and unlikely to be bothered by the Romans, because they had basically no regard for women.

        Mark makes that clear at the end. The women were the only ones who didn’t abandon him.

  13. dschmidt01
    dschmidt01  February 17, 2018

    Thanx Professor. I personaly find the version in Mark to be more realistic. A good sacrifice should be painful and brutal and horrible otherwise it’s not much of a sacrifice. As you pointed out lukes Jesus is too laid back. It’s not much of a sacrifice if Jesus already knew he was gonna come out on top in the end.

    • HawksJ  February 18, 2018

      “ It’s not much of a sacrifice if Jesus already knew he was gonna come out on top in the end.”

      Ah, but that’s the paradox that is, logically, impossible to reconcile, isn’t it?

      As you say, it wasn’t much of a sacrifice if Jesus knew what was going on and that he was moments away from returning to paradise. On the other hand, if he was truly god, then how could he not know?

      Put another way, you are right that Mark’s portrayal was the most likely, but it also does not describe a full-fledged member of the Trinity.

    • HistoricalChristianity  February 19, 2018

      People didn’t kill their sacrificial animals to make them suffer. They killed them to feed themselves and the priests, and to appease the gods. All the animal had to do was die.

  14. Spiral  February 17, 2018

    Bart, to those who believe that the Bible is inerrant, which discrepancies within the four gospels do you think are most provocative?

    I recently stumbled on a discrepancy between Mark and Luke regarding Jesus’ baptism.

    Mark clearly states that Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist.

    But Luke 3:21 says merely that “Jesus was also baptized” and in the preceding verse, 3:20, John the Baptist is shut in prison.

    So, was Jesus baptized by John the Baptist or not?

    Isn’t this among the David Letterman top 10 most glaring discrepancies in the gospels? Or does this one barely make it to number 38 on your list?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 18, 2018

      It’s usually understood that 3:21-22 is providing a flashback. The hardest discrepancies are the ones between two different accounts of the same event that are at odds.

  15. RonaldTaska  February 17, 2018

    Readers new to the blog need to click on the youtube icon at the top of this page and listen to some of Dr. Ehrman’s lectures and debates. They are really quite good and so helpful. Four examples related to this current blog:

    1. The debate with Licona on “The Resurrection”;

    2. The debate with Licona on whether “Jesus Rose from the Dead”;

    3. The debate with McGraw on “Can We trust the Gospels?”

    4. The debate with Craig on “Does the New Testament Present a Reliable Portrait of Jesus?”

  16. caesar  February 17, 2018

    It seems to me you have mentioned Randel Helms’ book Gospel Fictions in the past. If so…he says that when a later author changes a story of an earlier author, the later author is arguing that the earlier author’s story is a fiction. If you have read his book, do you think his arguments are compelling?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 18, 2018

      It’s been many years, I’m afraid, so I don’t remember the details.

  17. don4409  February 17, 2018

    In “Jesus Interrupted” you say “…historical criticism can have serious theological payoffs, and these should be embraced and proclaimed.” This can lead to a more intelligent and thoughtful faith. In this book you explain why John had Jesus crucified on the day of preparation, it was because of his view of Jesus as the lamb of God. In this blog or in one of your books do you give examples of others?
    Thanks

  18. anthonygale  February 17, 2018

    Do you think the gospel writers ever intended to write “historically accurate” accounts? Just because people today think thats what they ought to have done doesnt mean they saw it that way. Were they using the stories they thought actually more or less happened? Did they know full well they had no idea what really happened but saw no fault in creating a story they thought to be true in some sense? In any case, it seems wrong for anyone to insist on applying a modern standard that might not have existed in their world.

    • HistoricalChristianity  February 19, 2018

      That was indeed the nature of the ancient bios genre. Stories told to show what kind of person you believed your protagonist to be. Truth was neither expected nor required.

    • godspell  February 22, 2018

      It really hasn’t changed that much.

      We still repeat stories about real people that have no documented basis in reality.

      Myth-making is part of what we are.

      It’s important to know where the line is, but we can be on both sides of the line.

      • HistoricalChristianity  February 27, 2018

        You may think it’s important to know where that line is. They didn’t. They (the original audience for the gospels) didn’t think they were reading history.

  19. Luke9733  February 18, 2018

    I remember watching your debate with Craig Evans on this topic. My takeaway was that the debate sort of came down to semantics. You both *clearly* thought that *some* of the Gospel details were historical, but I didn’t really much back-and-forth discussion about which specific details were or were not historical. At a certain point, I almost got the impression that you two were working with different definitions of “reliable” without realizing it (or at least without clarifying). That was just my initial impression. I’m not sure if you thought the same thing during that debate or not.

    Maybe in this upcoming debate, someone should clarify what constitutes as reliable – or maybe stake out particular degrees of reliability (1. Nothing in the gospels is accurate. 2. Most of the details in the gospels are not accurate. 3. Half the details are accurate. 4. Most of the details are accurate. 5. Every detail is accurate).

  20. Wilusa  February 18, 2018

    Something I’m curious about: Do you think most lay Christians now understand that the canonical Gospels weren’t written by men named Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John? (A fact that shouldn’t trouble anyone, since it has nothing to do with whether the authors were “inspired” by God.)

    Wikipedia describes the contemporary research. Anyone who’s interested should be aware of it. But I’m remembering that a while back, I checked out a Catholic writer’s attempt to show that the birth narratives in “Matthew” and “Luke” aren’t inconsistent. His argument wasn’t plausible. But beyond that, I’m pretty sure he referred to the authors as “St. Matthew” and “St. Luke.” If so, he must have believed those were the *real* authors.

    • Bart
      Bart  February 18, 2018

      My sense is that most lay people assume the Gospels were written by matthew, mark, Luke, and John.

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