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Why Would Jesus’ Disciples Think He Was The Messiah?

The big question to emerge from my previous post is: If Jesus’ disciples (or at least some of them) believed he was the messiah before he died (as I tried to show they must have done) then what would have led them to think so?

I think there are two possibilities, one of which strikes me as implausible.  The implausible one, in my opinion, is that Jesus did things that the messiah was expected to do, and because of that, his followers thought he was the messiah.  My reason for not being drawn to this interpretation is precisely that Jesus in fact did not do any of the things that the messiah was expected or supposed to do.

Some of my Christian students don’t get this.   Doesn’t the Bible predict that…

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The Apocalyptic Background to Jesus’ Messiahship
Jesus the Messiah Before the Resurrection



  1. talmoore
    talmoore  November 18, 2016

    Dr. Ehrman, you keep leaving us in suspense! 🙁

  2. Avatar
    toejam  November 18, 2016

    I’m curious if you’re familiar with J. R. Daniel Kirk’s views on Synoptic Christology – perhaps best represented in his book “A Man Attested by God: The Human Jesus of the Synoptic Gospels”? It seems he sits somewhere in between yourself and Simon Gathercole. Would that be a fair analysis?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 20, 2016

      He was my student as an undergraduate! But I haven’t read his book.

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    Judith  November 18, 2016

    Everything I can think of to describe how good this is falls short. It’s that good.

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    mjt  November 18, 2016

    What sources do we have that showed those three kinds of messiah the Jews were expecting?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 20, 2016

      Mainly apocryphal texts, such as the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Psalms of Solomon. If you’re interested you might want to read John Collins The Star and the Scepter, where he deals with all the texts in a helpful study.

  5. Avatar
    jhague  November 18, 2016

    “Jesus was known as a great miracle worker”

    What was Jesus doing in front of the people for them to think that he was a great miracle worker? Was he doing tricks?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 20, 2016

      I imagine the sorts of things most miracle workers with reputations continue to do. Most people believe in them not because they’ve done things but because they have been reputed to have done things.

      • Avatar
        Pattycake1974  November 20, 2016

        “I imagine the sorts of things most miracle workers with reputations continue to do. Most people believe in them not because they’ve done things but because they have been reputed to have done things.”

        Looking at it that way, I automatically think of someone who has a miracle-working reputation–Benny Hinn. Can Benny Hinn perform miracles? I don’t think so. People who follow him believe he can perform miracles, and I’m assuming he also believes himself to be a miracle worker. But here’s my question–What set the whole thing in motion in the first place? What happened to make him believe this about himself as well as others? These are the questions I ask myself when it comes to Jesus.

        I’m not sure if a modern-day context is appropriate for Jesus, but I imagine him as having a dynamic personality. Mainly because televangelists and those I’ve known personally who were also believed to be miracle workers, modern prophets, etc… always seemed to be charismatic types. There’s also other traits I’ve noticed: they’re usually the center of attention, followed by an entourage or maybe in Jesus’ case–admirers, they pray for people, and rebuke evil spirits.

        When I read the New Testament, that magnetic, energizing personality comes through. The historical Jesus does not give me the same sense. He feels very ordinary and somewhat dull, but I don’t think that’s right. To me, it makes more sense that those who followed Jesus were so enthralled by charismatic character, he was seen as a miracle worker during his lifetime.

      • Avatar
        jhague  November 21, 2016

        Do we know what most miracle workers with reputations do? I’m guessing tricks that can impress an uneducated crowd?

        • Bart
          Bart  November 24, 2016

          One thing we can say is that their followers spread lots of stories about their miraculous deeds!

  6. Avatar
    Bilbo  November 18, 2016

    Wait. They would call him “son of God”?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 20, 2016

      Sorry, I don’t know what you’re asking.

      • Avatar
        Bilbo  November 20, 2016

        You wrote above:

        “Jesus was known as a great miracle worker and teacher. What did people call a great miracle worker and teacher? They did not call him the messiah. They normally called him … a great miracle worker and teachers Or if they wanted to give such a person a title, it might be “son of God” or “holy man” or “righteous one.” But not messiah.”

        So I ask again, they would call him “son of God”?

        • Bart
          Bart  November 21, 2016


          • Avatar
            Bilbo  November 21, 2016

            Why would they call him “son of God”?

          • Bart
            Bart  November 23, 2016

            That was a term that could be used of people considered “holy.”

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    ncarmstrong  November 18, 2016

    Or maybe Jesus did neither. Perhaps it wasn’t until after his crucifixion that the myth of Jesus as messiah grew up and the stories began to be circulated.

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    Jason  November 18, 2016

    What attitudes would the Jews who knew of Jesus’s activities but remained adjacent to his movement have had towards Jesus? I seem to remember him described as a “sorcerer” in some Halachic or Talmudic source-would that have carried negative connotations at the time?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 20, 2016

      There must have been an enormous range of opinions.

      • Avatar
        HistoricalChristianity  December 2, 2016

        Do you believe everything that everyone said about Obama on Facebook? The gospel authors produced a Facebook abstract. Nearly every belief that people at the time (4 decades later) had was incorporated into the gospel narratives. But if the main characterization as a sage of Second Temple Judaism was correct, then everyone thought of him as a typical backwoods sage, a student of Hillel. A respected position, but also held by many others, and many much more prominent.

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    clipper9422@yahoo.com  November 18, 2016

    I know I should wait for the next post but…. Even though Jesus himself wasn’t a cosmic Son of Man figure, that figure did play a major role in Jesus’s message. Might not Jesus, along with his followers, have thought of himself as, say, the herald of the Son of Man? Also, the messiah, like Jesus, was to be an apocalyptic figure.

    My point is that perhaps the association of Jesus with the Son of Man and with apocalypticism gave him sort of a “family resemblance” to the messiah even though he himself was not the type of figure the messiah was expected to be. There was enough resemblance so that it wasn’t such a huge leap for Jesus, along with his followers, to think of himself as the messiah.

    • Bart
      Bart  November 20, 2016

      My view is that Jesus did not see himself as the son of man. I’ll get to that!

  10. Avatar
    kentvw  November 19, 2016

    Let us not understand this.. Let’s put our hands over our ears, close our eyes and scream LA, LA, LA!!!! Just a word of thanks Bart.. It has been a tough road for me personally to leave traditional Christianity.. I lost my own family along the way. At the end of the day though? I can sleep in peace at night. A life lived with no illusions is to me a better way to live. Thanks

  11. tompicard
    tompicard  November 19, 2016

    The thrust of Jesus’ message was that the ‘Kingdom of God’ was at hand, and it is also true that Jesus did not expect to be a martyr. These points are explained clearly in “Jesus the Apocalyptic Prophet . .’

    Therefore it is not unreasonable to say Jesus would have expected to have a role or even be the ‘King’ in this imminent ‘Kingdom of God’.
    But it is equally clear that Jesus’ conception of a ‘Kingdom’ and the role of its leader i.e ‘King’ was 180 degrees completely opposite to what the general population of Judea or even the world understood, and even his disciples did not understand this part of his teaching. Like his disciples, I have a hard time understanding his descriptions of the Kingdom – like a mustard seed or some leaven or a pearl. But I’m sure that the Kingdom was NOT at all meant to be like those headed by Caesar and Herod.

    • tompicard
      tompicard  November 19, 2016

      what i mean is
      There is a question more fundamental than whether Jesus told his disciples that he was going to be a king. That is: what did the mean by “the Kingdom of Heaven” and what did it mean to be the ruler there?
      I hope you will answer that.

  12. Robert
    Robert  November 19, 2016

    “My thesis is that it was not because of anything that Jesus did. It was because of something he said. This is the second of my two possibilities, then. The followers of Jesus came to think he was the messiah because he told them he was. He told them he was going to be the king of Israel. This, in the end, is what got him killed. I’ll explain all that in future posts.”

    But why would Jesus think he was the Messiah? If you don’t answer that, you’ve just shifted the question back a step.

    • Bart
      Bart  November 20, 2016

      Do you mean what were the inner psychological processes within his own consciousness? That’s something no historian could ever know (about Jesus or anyone else!)

      • Robert
        Robert  November 22, 2016

        No, not really. I’m not asking about his inner psychological world. You’ve established that the disciples would not have believed that Jesus was the Messiah because, for example, he did not do any of the things that were expected of a Messiah. So why would Jesus have believed himself to be a Messiah? Would he not have had the same expectations of a Messiah that his disciples did?

        • Bart
          Bart  November 23, 2016

          I wish we knew! But apart from psychological explanations, I’m not sure what options there are for speculating. (A lot of people think that God has a particular and particularly important plan for them)

          • Robert
            Robert  November 24, 2016

            I think the best speculation on this matter accepts that Jesus probably enjoyed some measure of real success in his early Gallilean social and religious teachings. This also helps explain the growith of the early movement if it already had a substantial basis beyond the small group of disciples who fled the scene when Jesus was arrested in Jerusalem. Surely he must have been an extraordinary leader and brilliant teacher if some were willing to entertain the idea that he was a Messiah.

        • tompicard
          tompicard  November 23, 2016


          Dr Erhman has described three COMMON views of the messiah, and Jesus didn’t fit those.
          So, unless you think Jesus is psychotic (eg he saw himself as a cosmic ‘cloud-riding divine judge’) , you should conclude that Jesus’ view of the Messiah was different than the three COMMON views.

          After recently reading Dr. Ehrman’s “Jesus the Apocalyptic Prophet. . ” which I would recommend, I picked up John Cobb’s “Jesus’ Abba” which presents a possible view Jesus held of the role of the Messiah which is different than these three and to me is more reasonable.

      • Avatar
        dragonfly  November 24, 2016

        Tyler Henry could!

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    rburos  November 19, 2016

    It’s another cliff hanger!

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    Tempo1936  November 19, 2016

    1. Paul thought Jesus was the Messiah because God raised him from the dead.
    2. The followers of the historical Jesus believed he was the Messiah because he was going to be the king of Israel.
    3. The Gospel of John teaches that Jesus was the Messiah because he is God .
    4. No one thought he was the Messiah because he was crucified as a criminal.

    Do you agree?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 20, 2016

      Not exactly, but it would take too long to explain in a comment. I’d be happy to comment on any of them if you want to try one.

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    nassergayed  November 19, 2016

    The expectation that the Messiah would set Israel free was probably the most prevalent view. Certainly the view of the Emmaus disciples. However, Jesus does explain that this was a misreading of the scripture. He goes on to explain that the Messiah had to “…undergo all this so as to enter into his glory”.
    The other point is why was Jesus known by his disciples as a miracle worker? Did he actually perform miracles? Or do you believe they made up those stories while he was still alive?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 20, 2016

      I myself don’t think he did miracles. But I can imagine people claiming he did even during his lifetime.

      • Avatar
        mjkhan  November 21, 2016

        Bart,The subject of Jesus and all the prophets in both testaments is very fascinating for Muslims as,well.we believe,he did miracles ,i.e he was born without male intervention According to Quran ,his first miracle was when he spoke and defended his mother,when jews,came accusing Mary of adultery.Jesus cured leper,he raised dead to life etc.Quran claims,itself to be a criterion ,that to confirm what is true,so to know what really is truth if u want in case of suspicion,read Quran and u will find correct answers.

      • Avatar
        Wilusa  November 21, 2016

        Do you think anyone would have *falsely* claimed he did? I mean, knowing that what they were saying wasn’t true?

        I just had this thought about his disciples, that Passover Week in Jerusalem, “stirring up interest” by making claims no one who *knew* him, up in Galilee, would have believed…

        • Bart
          Bart  November 21, 2016

          Of course. False claims about miracle workers happen all the time, and always have. They happen even now, regularly, when such things can be more easily *checked*. All the time!

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    Tony  November 19, 2016

    Your Christian students have been taught from their earliest days that the OT is all about Jesus with prophecies being fulfilled by the Gospels. I doubt very much if an explanations by a secular prof will do much to convince them.

    Of course, the Christian students are right. The Gospels are chock full of OT prophesy fulfillment. Randel Helms in “Gospel Fictions” does a great job in identifying the extend.

    The Mythicists explanation is that the Gospel writers were clueless about the life and times of Jesus Christ – since Paul provided none. So, following Paul’s, “according to the scriptures”, they mined the Septuagint, and wrote their story about the Jerusalem Messiah accordingly.

    This also made it necessary to include the Hebrew Bible in the Orthodox Christian Canon.

  17. Avatar
    TomThomas128  November 19, 2016

    If not the messiah, who was the author of Isaiah speaking of in chapter 53?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 20, 2016

      He is explicit. It is the Servant of the Lord. He identifies who this is in Isa. 49:3. It is Israel.

      • talmoore
        talmoore  November 20, 2016

        If I could clarify your point, Dr. Ehrman, I think English speakers often get confused by the word “servant” in the Hebrew Bible. The Hebrew word that is often translated as servant is ‘eved — עבד — which literally means a laborer, as in someone who does physical work, as opposed to someone who doesn’t do physical work (such as an aristocrat, for example). So, in some cases, ‘eved can mean a slave, such as a literal bonded servant, or in other cases it can mean a free laborer (like a hired hand), but it can also simply define a hierarchical relationship between a master and his subject, such as how priests and Levites were the ‘evdim, i.e. “servants” of God, or how a prophet, whom God used as a conduit though which to speak his will, was a “servant” of God. Similarly, angels were “servants” of God, as were anyone who, technically, “worshipped” God, for anyone who “worshipped” a god was a servant of that god. That’s why throughout the ancient literature, in both the Hebrew and Aramaic, you’ll often find ‘eved translated as “worshipper,” because in ancient times, one would “worship” a deity by, in effect, working for that deity!

        Anyway, the point I’m trying to make is that when Isaiah is talking about the “servant” of God in chapter 53 and its adjacents, he’s referring, by way of synecdoche, to the totality of those people for whom YHWH is their God, and they are his worshippers, or ‘evdim, i.e. “servants”. In other words, God is the master in the metaphor, while all Israel are the “servant” who is being punished for his disobedience.

        • SBrudney091941
          SBrudney091941  November 29, 2016

          I love and respect so many of your informative posts, Talmoore. Putting together Bart’s response and yours about Isaiah 53 helps immensely. Do you have a blow by blow Jewish response to Christian claims about verses in the “Old” Testament that are messianic prophecies which they take, of course, to be referring to Jesus? One that you have a link to or in something you’ve published? I know this is something sites like JewsForJudaism.com address but I’m interested in your treatment of these Christian claims.

          • Avatar
            peterstone  December 2, 2016

            I had the exact same question! It would be fascinating to see a complete list of 1) the passages from the OT that the early Christians believed reflected prophecies that Jesus fulfilled, and 2) the arguments why these passages were in fact wrenched out of context by the early Christians. An article or book on that topic would be great!

  18. Avatar
    JB  November 19, 2016

    Sorry if you’ve addressed this elsewhere, but what about the Gospel of Thomas? There are some reasons to believe it is contemporary with or possibly even older than the other Gospels. I know this is not certain, but if we were to accept that this is the case then what are we to make of the fact that this document does not refer to Jesus as Christ or Lord at all?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 20, 2016

      It’s debated, but my view is that it dates to the early second century, some decades after the Gsopels of the NT.

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    godspell  November 20, 2016

    And yet, I must again bring up the undeniable fact that many of the followers of Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, who died 1994, believed he was the Jewish Messiah, and some still do. And it seems pretty clear he never told anyone that he was. And this modern day Messiah story casts some serious doubt on a basic assumption you are making here. That devout followers of a man they believe to be holy are just puppets on a string–that they don’t have their own ideas, their own visions, which they project onto some figure (who may nor may not be worthy of their devotion), because they so desperately need to believe there is someone who can lead them to the promised land, whatever they think that may be.

    Jesus told them things that allowed them to believe he was Messiah–but he never told them in so many words that he was, and he almost certainly did tell them he would not live much longer, and this was a source of agony and even outright rebellion among the tiny ranks of his followers. He was refusing to live up to the image they had of him, the hopes they had for him. But after his death–and their failure to intervene effectively to save him–their guilt forced them to reexamine their assumptions about what the Messiah would be, and of course it triggered religious visions, that further convinced them that they had been wrong, and Jesus had been right.

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    Wilusa  November 20, 2016

    So he was really “in it for himself” (since he expected the Messiah to be exalted, not martyred!). And that may be precisely what turned Judas against him.

    • Avatar
      godspell  November 21, 2016

      But that makes no sense, since Judas would have likewise believed the Messiah was supposed to rule. Jesus lived a life of extreme poverty–he practiced what he preached. I don’t believe he thought he was going to be an earthly king, but even if he did, that would not explain Judas’s betrayal, assuming any such betrayal took place. If Judas believed in the conventional image of the Messiah, he would want Jesus to rule over Israel.

      • Avatar
        Wilusa  November 21, 2016

        But Judas might not have believed Jesus was the Messiah! He might not have been one of the Jews who anticipated a “Messiah.” He might have believed only in the future “Kingdom” – and *not* in the very human Jesus being destined to rule it.

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