Index: Notes on Ehrman's Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium

Below is a list of links to my recent series of posts on Ehrman's Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium. The book provides a nice, clear summary of the case for the mainstream view among New Testament scholars that Jesus was fundamentally an apocalyptic prophet heralding an imminent eschaton, and not the Son of God.

(ch. 1 is omitted, as it can be summarized quickly as follows: Christians from the present all the way through the past have believed that the end of the world would occur in their generation. There is a good reason for this: Jesus thought so, too.)

Notes: Assessing The Case for an Apocalyptic Jesus in Ehrman’s Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium

Notes: Assessing The Case for an Apocalyptic Jesus in Ehrman’s Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium


Review


-Scholars use criteria of authenticity to sift the earliest sources with eyewitness testimony to reconstruct the historical Jesus

-Applying these results yields seven general lines of evidence that Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet:
  • #1: The earliest sources portray Jesus as an apocalyptic prophet
  • #2 The later sources tone down the apocalyptic language in the earlier sources
  • #3: Those connected to Jesus and his message before and after his earthly ministry were apocalypticists
  • #4: The apocalyptic prophet hypothesis makes best sense of his core teachings
  • #5 The apocalyptic prophet hypothesis makes best sense of his ethical teachings
  • #6: The apocalyptic prophet hypothesis makes best sense of his actions
  • #7: The apocalyptic prophet hypothesis makes best sense of his last days 
On the Nature of Ehrman’s Argument

-Ehrman’s argument is best construed as an inference to the best explanation
  • Inferences to the best explanation proceed by listing a range of data, and arguing that one competing hypothesis best explains that data
  • A hypothesis is the best explanation of the data to the extent that it exemplifies the theoretical virtues (simplicity, scope, conservatism, predictive power, etc.) better than any competing theory
Reconstructing Ehrman's Argument
-Call the hypothesis that Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet, Apocalyptic Prophet
-Ehrman’s argument can then be stated as follows: 

1. If Apocalyptic Prophet is the best explanation of the relevant data, then Jesus was probably an apocalyptic prophet.
2. Apocalyptic Prophet is the best explanation of the relevant data (cf. 1-7 above)
---------------------------------------------
3. Therefore, Jesus was probably an apocalyptic prophet


Evaluating Ehrman’s Argument

-The key premise is (2): the Apocalyptic Prophet hypothesis is the best explanation of the relevant data.

-But is it?

-To answer that, we’ll need to answer two other questions:
  • What standards does an explanation have to meet to be the best? 
  • Does the Apocalyptic Jesus hypothesis meet those standards better than any competing hypothesis?
Step 1: What Makes an Explanation the Best?
-In the type of case at hand, predictive power and related theoretical virtues aren't all that relevant, as we're evaluating hypotheses that explain past facts, and not future phenomena.  Determining which hypothesis is the best explanation therefore largely boils down to the following three:
  • 1. Simplicity: One hypothesis is simpler than another if the former adds fewer new assumptions than the latter to explain the data.
  • 2. Scope: One hypothesis has wider explanatory scope than another if the former explains more data than the latter.
  • 3. Conservatism: One hypothesis is more conservative than another if the former requires throwing out fewer of our prior beliefs than the other that are already well-justified.
-In short, then: the simplest, most conservative hypothesis that has the widest explanatory scope is the best explanation of the historical Jesus, and is thus the most probable one.

-The consensus view: The Apocalyptic Jesus hypothesis best explains the relevant data, viz., at least the seven discussed in Ehrman’s book (cf. Sanders, Vermes, Fredriksen, et al.)

-However, some scholars deny this and reject premise 2

-If they are better explainations, then they must meet the criteria above (and perhaps others) better than The Apocalyptic Prophet hypothesis.

-The main obstacle with such approaches is that they have trouble explaining all the early, multiply-attested data for this hypothesis discussed in Ehrman’s book. Let’s briefly look at how they aim to do so:

1. Responses from Conservatives:
A. Divide and Conquer (Craig Blomberg, et al.): the strategy is to take the group of passages that seem to have Jesus saying the apocalypse is imminent (i.e., that it would occur within his generation), and provide an alternative interpretation for each one (e.g., when Jesus said that his generation wouldn't pass away before the apocalypse happened, what he really meant was that the Jews wouldn't pass away before it happened. When Jesus said that his earliest disciples wouldn't finish preaching to the surrounding cities of Israel before the end happened, he was really referring to the perennially incomplete task of evangelism to the Jews; etc., etc..)

B. Destruction of the Temple (NT Wright, et al.): the strategy is to argue that, yes, Jesus really did predict the end within his generation, i.e., we should take those passages at face-value. However, all the end-time passages were fulfilled with the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D.

C. Possible End Only (Ben Witherington, et al.): the strategy is to assert that what Jesus really meant in all those passages is that the End *might* be at hand, not that it *is* at hand.

2. Responses from Moderates
A. Jesus Didn't Say That: (Raymond Brown et al.): the strategy is to say that all the passages that have Jesus preach the imminent coming of the apocalypse are inauthentic -- i.e., Jesus didn't say those things; they were attributed to Jesus by the early church. However, Jesus is the Son of God.

B. Jesus Said it, and He Was Wrong. But So What! (Dale Allison, C.S. Lewis et al.): the strategy is to admit that the passages where Jesus predicts an imminent end are authentic, and to admit that he was wrong -- the End didn't happen -- but to say that it has no serious implications for the truth of Christianity. Jesus is still the Son of God.

3. Responses from Liberals: 
Jesus Wasn't an Apocalypticist (Crossan, Mack, et al.): the strategy is a variation on the Jesus Didn't Say That response of the Moderates. The strategy is to argue that all those passages that have Jesus preach the imminent coming of the apocalypse are inauthentic -- i.e., Jesus didn't say those things; they were attributed to Jesus by the early church. However, Jesus wasn't the Son of God, either -- at least not in any literal sense. Rather, he was a social reformer, a revolutionary, a sage philosopher, or some variant of thereof.

Evaluation: Which Hypothesis Is the Best Explanation?

-To evaluate Ehrman’s Apocalyptic Jesus argument, then, we need to:
  • Examine each hypothesis
  • Determine which hypothesis is the simplest, most conservative hypothesis with the widest explanatory scope
-The consensus view: hypothesis that Jesus was primarily an apocalyptic prophet (cf. Sanders, Vermes, Fredriksen, Ehrman, etc.)

-Why? The other proposals mentioned above seem to be more complex (i.e., they add new assumptions to explain the same data), have less explanatory scope (i.e., they can’t explain all seven lines of data as well, and sometimes not at all), and/or less conservative (i.e., they require that we throw out some of the seven lines of data discussed in Ehrman’s book).

Conclusion: It therefore looks as though Ehrman is correct: the most probable hypothesis is that Jesus was primarily an apocalyptic prophet of an imminent eschaton.

Notes: Chapter 12 of Ehrman's Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium

Notes: Ch. 12 of Ehrman’s Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium

Thesis: Jesus’ visit to Jerusalem, and his subsequent arrest, trial, and execution, are best explained in terms of his acocalyptic message and actions.

1. Jesus’ trip to Jerusalem for the Passover Celebration, and his subsequent activities there, are best explained in terms of his apocalyptic message and his perceived role in proclaiming it.

2. Jesus went to the temple during the Passover Festival, and spent many days teaching about his apocalyptic message of the imminent coming kingdom of God. -The apocalyptic message included the idea that the temple in Jerusalem would also be destroyed.

3. Jesus’ also caused a disturbance in the temple itself, which appears to have been a symbolic enactment of his apocalyptic teaching about the temple’s destruction.

4. Jesus’ teaching and disturbance in the temple during the Passover put Jesus on the Sadducee’s radar. They were ready to have him arrested, as they thought he might tip the scales of high political tension that regularly exists during the Passover due to silent protests (see ch. 7).

5. Jesus’ betrayal by Judas Iscariot, and Jesus’ subsequent arrest, is best explained in terms of Judas’ betraying to the religious authorities (the Sadducees and the chief priests) Jesus’ teaching (to his inner circle of disciples) that he would be the King of the Jews in the coming Kingdom of God.

6. Jesus was executed on the charge of political sedition, due to his claim that he was the King of the Jews. His execution was therefore directly related to his apocalyptic message of the imminent coming of the kingdom of God.

Notes: Chapter 11 of Ehrman's Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium

Notes: Ch. 11 of Ehrman’s Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium


Thesis: Jesus’ actions prior to his execution were apocalyptic


1. Jesus’ baptism and discipleship, and his ringing endorsement of John and his message throughout Jesus’ ministry, indicates that he accepted his apocalyptic message. In fact, Jesus’ message was virtually the same as John’s.

2. Jesus’ calling of twelve disciples is apocalyptic. They represented the twelve tribes of Israel that would be restored with the coming kingdom of God. Jesus said that they would be rulers and judges of the twelve tribes when the kingdom of God came to Earth.

3. Jesus’ base followers were all considered to represent the “bottom” of society in his day: the poor, sinners, prostitutes, outcasts, tax collectors, lepers, and the demon-possessed. This is perfectly in line with the standard apocalyptic doctrine of the reversal of fortunes when the kingdom of God comes: “the first shall be last, and the last shall be first”.

4. Jesus performed many exorcisms, which he claimed marked the inbreaking of the kingdom of God on Earth. They were thus signs of the imminent apocalypse. Satan and his minions were being cast out of power, and God’s power was taking its place.

Notes: Chapter 10 of Ehrman's Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium

Notes: Chs. 10 of Ehrman’s Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium
Thesis: Jesus’ Other Teachings Are Apocalyptic

1. Keeping the Jewish law by loving God and neighbor as necessary preparation to enter the kingdom


2. “Seek first the Kingdom”: Jesus’ teachings on the supreme value of the kingdom

  • Everything else pales in comparison 
  • All else should be sacrificed to enter it (possessions, standing, job) 
  • Thus, the present world has no real attractions 
  • Thus, daily matters in the present world should be a matter of indifference. 
3. Jesus’ anti-family teachings are apocalyptic
  • Hating father, mother, brothers, and sisters (Lk 14:26)
  • Jesus has come to ‘set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law’; and ‘a man’s enemies will be those of his own household.’ He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me. (Mtt 10:34-39)
  • Etc.
4. Jesus’ other ethical teachings are best seen as corollaries of living life in light of entering the  kingdom about to come: radicalization of the law:
  • Don’t divorce 
  • Forgiveness 
  • Don’t judge others 
  • Love one’s enemies 
  • Care for the underprivileged and the oppressed

Notes: Chapter 9 of Ehrman's Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium


Notes: Ch. 9 of Ehrman’s Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium

Key Thesis: The apocalyptic prophet hypothesis makes best sense of Jesus’ core teachings.


1. Jesus message to repent and prepare for the imminent coming of the kingdom of God is apocalyptic 
  • Imminent 
  • Comes in power 
  • On Earth 
  • People enter into it 
  • The righteous will enter and the wicked will be cast out into Gehenna 
  • There will be eating and drinking within it 
  • The twelve disciples will sit on twelve thrones and judge/rule the twelve tribes of Israel. -God will extend his heavenly rule to Earth by means of it 
  • Eternal utopian existence 
2. Jesus’ message of coming judgment is apocalyptic
  • Judgment is imminent 
  • People need to repent to avoid it 
  • It will be meted out by the Son of Man, who is a cosmic judge sent from God (cf. the Book of Daniel in the OT). 
  • The Son of Man will come on the clouds of heaven with God’s holy angels. 
  • It will be accompanied with signs in heaven and on Earth (sun darkened, moon turned to blood, etc.) 
3. Jesus’ frequent references to the Son of Man are commonly referring to the cosmic figure in Daniel, who was an apocalyptic figure
  • Context: Daniel ch. 7 
  • Jesus doesn’t seem to be referring to himself in the earliest units of tradition (Mark) -This is embarrassing to the later church 
  • Passes the criteria of early strata, multiple attestation, embarrassment, and contextual credibility 
4. Jesus’ teachings about reversals/inversions in the Kingdom of God ("the first shall be last, and the last, first") are apocalyptic (see ch. 7 notes, near bottom)
  • servanthood 
  • becoming like children 
  • salvation offered to sinners (i.e., people who make no attempt to follow God’s law) 
  • the Beatitudes/Sermon on the Mount: the lowly who get lifted 
5. Jesus’ teachings of a coming day of destruction are apocalyptic

6. Jesus’ assertions about the destruction of the temple are apocalyptic


7. Jesus’ teaching about judgment being universal (i.e., to both Israel and to non-Jews far outside Israel) is apocalyptic


8. Jesus’ teachings about judgment being imminent are apocalyptic.

Notes: Chapter 8 of Ehrman's Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium

Notes: Chapter 8 of Ehrman’s Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium
Topic: The Core Case for an Apocalyptic Jesus

Review: Sources and Methods for Reconstructing the Historical Jesus
-Historical Jesus scholars reconstruct the most probable account of who Jesus was by (i) finding the earliest sources with eyewitness information, and then (ii) using objective criteria to determine which units of material within these sources are probably authentic.

  • The earliest sources are Paul’s letters, Q, Mark, M, and L.
  • Later, less reliable sources that may have some eyewitness information are the canonical gospel of John, and the non-canonical gospels of Peter and of Thomas.

-The criteria applied to these sources are (i) early strata, (ii) lack of theological adornment, (iii) absence of author bias, (iv) multiple attestation, (v) dissimilarity, and (vi)contextual credibility

-The material from these sources that can be verified by these criteria are then used to reconstruct an account of who Jesus probably was, and what he probably said and did

Overview: Three Main Lines of Evidence for an Apocalyptic Jesus

  • #1: The earliest sources portray Jesus as an apocalyptic prophet
  • #2 The later sources tone down the apocalyptic language in the earlier sources
  • #3: Those connected to Jesus and his message before and after his earthly ministry were apocalypticists

First Line of Evidence: The earliest sources portray Jesus as an apocalyptic prophet

  • Multiple attestation: Attested in Mark, Q, M, L (also: Paul’s letters)
  • Embarrassment: Jesus’s false prediction of the apocalypse within his generation goes against the aims of the early church
  • Contextual credibility: there were a number of apocalyptic prophets in Jesus’s time, and it was a popular view among Jews at the time

Second Line of Evidence: The later sources tone down the apocalyptic language in the earlier sources

  • Matthew, Luke, John and Thomas progressively change, remove, or repudiate Jesus’ prediction of an imminent apocalypse in Mark and Q (128-132)
  •  Lk 9:27 mutes Jesus prediction of imminence in Mk 9:1; see also Lk 11:20, 17:21
  •  Lk 22:69 mutes Jesus prediction of imminence in Mk 14:62
  • Jn almost completely eliminates Jesus’s message of an imminent arrival of the kingdom of God through the Son of Man and replaces it with talk of eternal life through belief in Jesus
  • Thomas repudiates Jesus’s message of an imminent apocalypse (saying 113)
  • This pattern of progressively watering down Jesus’ prediction of an imminent apocalypse makes perfect sense if Jesus really did predict it, and his followers muted the message when his predictions didn’t come true

Third Line of Evidence: Those connected to Jesus and his message before and after his earthly ministry were apocalypticists

  • Before his ministry, Jesus associated with and was baptized by an apocalyptic prophet: John the Baptist (multiple independent attestation, embarrassment)
  • After his death, his earliest followers and the early church were apocalypticists (multiple independent attestation, early strata: Paul’s letters: I Thess. 4:13-18; I Cor. 15:51-57)
  • The apocalyptic teachings associated with Jesus both before and after his ministry are best explained if he himself was an apocalypticist

Bringing it All Together: The Core Case for an Apocalyptic Jesus
-Scholars use criteria of authenticity to sift the earliest sources with eyewitness testimony to reconstruct the historical Jesus

-Applying these results yields three main lines of evidence that Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet:

  • #1: The earliest sources portray Jesus as an apocalyptic prophet
  • #2 The later sources tone down the apocalyptic language in the earlier sources
  • #3: Those connected to Jesus and his message before and after his earthly ministry were apocalypticists

Notes: Chapter 7 of Ehrman's Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium

Notes: Ehrman’s Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium, Chapter 7

The aim of the chapter is to provide sufficient historical context of 1st century Palestine to help interpret the words and deeds of Jesus. This, in turn, will help us apply the criterion of contextual credibility discussed in ch. 6.

I. Political Crises in Palestine and Their Consequences

-The Israelites believed that God delivered them from the Egyptians and gave them their land. Yahweh was their God, and he was taken to have made a covenant with them: to protect and defend them, in the land that he had given them, in exchange for their devotion.

-Problem: Israel was subsequently dominated by foreign rulers for 800 years.
  • The Northern kingdom of Israel was conquered by the Assyrians in 721 BCE. 
  • The Southern kingdom of Judah was conquered by the Babylonians in 587-586 BCE. Jerusalem was leveled, the Temple was destroyed, and the leaders were taken into exile. 
  • About 50 years later, the Babylonians were overthrown by the Persians. The Persians ended the forced exile and allowed the leaders of Judea to return home. The Temple was then rebuilt, and the High Priest was given jurisdiction as a local ruler. Still, the Persian king had final authority. The Persians ruled over the kingdom of Judah for about 200 years. 
  • Then, Alexander the Great, ruler of Macedonia, overthrew the Persians and took control of the land, and much of the surrounding area. He spread the Greek language, religion, and culture throughout his new empire, including Israel. 
  • Alexander the Great died in 323 BCE. His generals then divided up his realm, and Palestine came to be ruled by Ptolemy, the general in charge of Egypt. 
  • In 198 CE, the ruler of Syria wrested control of Palestine from Ptolemy. 
  • A subsequent Persian ruler, Antiochus Epiphanes, sought to bring a stronger unity to his empire. Part of his plan involved requiring his subjects to adopt many aspects of Greek culture. While many Jews embraced this move for Hellenization, many Jews found this to be a deep offense to their religious life. In response, Antiochus imposed strict enforcement of his plan, banning the practice of circumcision (a crucial component of Jewish identity). He also had the Jewish temple converted into a pagan sanctuary, and required Jews to sacrifice to the pagan gods. 
  • This led to a Jewish revolt and armed rebellion, which started in 167 BCE. The rebellion was led by a family of Jewish priests – the Maccabeans (aka the Hasmoneans). The campaign was successful. They drove out the Syrian army and resumed full control of the land, reestablishing the Jewish state for the first time in 400 years. They rededicated the Temple to Yahweh, and appointed a high priest as ruler of the land. (Some pious Jews didn’t recognize the new priest’s legitimacy, as was not a descendant of the priest Zadok. This will prove an important point in a moment.) The Hasmoneans ruled the land for about 80 years – up until 63 BCE. 
  • They were conquered by Roman general Pompey. The Romans allowed the high priest to remain in office, and he acted as mediator between the Jews and the Romans. However, the Romans had ultimate authority. 
  • In 40 BCE, Rome appointed Herod the Great to rule Palestine. Herod was from a family from the neighboring land of Idumea. They were forced to convert to Judaism. Because of this, native Israelites considered Herod as half-Jewish at best. 
  • After Herod the Great’s death, his son, Herod Antipas, became the ruler of Galilee (the northern region of the land). He ruled this region during Jesus’ lifetime. (30s CE) 
  • The southern region was ruled by Roman prefects (administrators). Pontius Pilate was prefect during Jesus lifetime. (30s CE)
-This brief historical sketch of the 800 years of nearly unbroken foreign domination of the Jews -- in the land they believed was given to them by their god, Yahweh -- provides the contextual framework for understanding the historical background of the social, political, and religious tensions and crises in Palestine during the life and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth, and his own response to them.

II. A Consequence of the Unorthodox Hasmonean Rule: The Formation of Jewish Sects
-Various sects emerged in reaction to the rule of Hasmoneans:

The Pharisees: To preserve their faith and culture and to prevent corruption from
Hellenization, these devout Jews were intent to follow the will of God through obeying the Law of Moses. Unfortunately, the Law of Moses is ambiguous in many places. Because of this, they developed the Mishnah, a set of rules that aimed to clarify the Law of Moses, and thereby to help ensure that they obeyed it. The Pharisees are important for understanding the historical Jesus in part because it helps us understand his own teaching: He opposed theirs. He didn’t think adherence to the Law was the most important aspect worshipping God. He also disagreed with their way of following the Law by following the Mishnah.

The Sadducees: Among the four groups listed here, they had the most power in Palestine in Jesus’ day. They were mainly members of the Jewish aristocracy in Jerusalem, and were closely connected to the Jewish priesthood (who, in turn was in charge of the Temple cult). Indeed, many Sadducees were themselves priests. They were given some political power from the Romans, although they had to defer to them. They were part of the local council (the Sanhedrin), which was called upon to settle local matters. The Sadducees seemed to seek peaceful relations with the Romans, and were thus very accommodating to the Roman governor. As priests of the Temple who only accepted the Torah (the five books of Moses), their religious mode of life emphasized proper involvement in the worship of God as prescribed by the Torah. Although popular beliefs among the Jews of Jesus’ day, the Sadducees denied the existence of angels and the resurrection of the dead. The Sadducees are important for understanding the historical Jesus in part because Jesus’ roused their anger by proclaiming that their Temple – the focal point of their status and political power -- would be destroyed in an imminent act of divine judgment.


The Essenes: The one Jewish sect from Jesus’ time not mentioned in the New Testament. We know of them through the writings of Josephus, and from the fact that they seemed to have been the ones who produced the Dead Sea Scrolls. They lived as an isolated community in the wilderness area east of Jerusalem, near the western shore of the Dead Sea (the area is now known as Qumran). Their sect appears to have been formed around 150 BCE, during the Maccabean period. Their sect seemed to have originated as a reaction to their belief that their authority was usurped by the appointment of a non-Zadokite priest during that period. They were apocalypticists, as they were convinced that the end of time was imminent. They believed this would be accomplished by a final battle between the children of light and the children of darkness, in which God would triumph and his children would enter into his kingdom. Some believed the apocalypse would involve two messiahs – a king and a priest. The kingly messiah would rule the kingdom in righteousness, and the priestly messiah would lead God’s people in worship in the purified Temple. In the meantime, as preparation for the apocalypse, they isolated themselves in their community and devoted themselves to ritual purity and the keeping of the Law of Moses. Entrance into the community required giving up all of one’s worldly possessions to the benefit of the community, and sharing in a common meal with all the other members. The Essenes are important for understanding the historical Jesus in part because he seemed to have shared many of their views: belief in an imminent apocalypse, the need to prepare for the coming kingdom of God, giving up all one’s possessions, and sharing a common meal with the separated community.


The Fourth Philosophy: Several different sects adhered to a basic set of beliefs of the Fourth Philosophy. The core beliefs among them were that: (i) since God gave them their land, all foreign rule of it was illegitimate; (ii) the appropriate response to foreign rule of their God-given land is resistance, including violent resistance if necessary. Two of these groups were (i) the “Sicarii” (Latin for “dagger”), and the “Zealots”. The Sicarii assassinated and kidnapped many high- ranking Jewish officials because they were thought to have been on the side of the Romans. The Zealots were Galilean Jews who engaged in armed rebellion to take back their God-given land. In 67 CE, They overthrew the priestly aristocracy in a bloody coup, and encouraged violent opposition to the Roman army, resulting in the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in 70 CE. The Fourth Philosophy is important for understanding the historical Jesus in part because he likewise thought Romans should be kicked out of Israel. However, he didn’t think it was to be achieved by violent revolt, but by God’s work in the events of the apocalypse.


III. Popular Modes of Resistance to Oppression 

-Many Jews resented Roman rule:
  • They believed their god Yahweh gave them their land, in which they could live autonomously and worship him according to their laws and customs. 
  • They resented paying a tax that left many Jews at a subsistence level of living. 
  • In fact, many saw it as blasphemous to have to be forced to support an empire that dominated the very land that God had given them. 
-Many Jews therefore expressed their resentment, although not all in the same way:
  • Some expressed it in silent protest through their celebration of the Passover in Jerusalem. Through celebration of this religious holiday, they were not merely celebrating their ancestor’s deliverance from Egypt many centuries in the past, but were also looking forward to their deliverance from their current Roman oppressors. The Romans were well aware of this symbolic form of protest, and thus stationed guards throughout Jerusalem during the Passover to prevent violent uprisings. 
  • Others expressed it in nonviolent uprisings. Occasionally, Roman political officials would do something that the Jews found offensive. Example. Pilate had Roman standards erected throughout Jerusalem that bore the image of Caesar. They voiced their disapproval by asking them to be removed. Pilate refused, and in response, many Jews a sit-in at his residence in Caesarea. 
  • Yet others expressed it in prophetic proclamations of God’s imminent intervention against the Romans on behalf of his people. Examples: Theudas, the Egyptian, etc. 
  • Finally, some expressed it in terms of violent insurrections. These were premeditated armed revolts. Example 1: Judas the son of Hezekiah (circa 6 CE). Example 2: The Zealot uprising in the 60s CE, which led to their defeat and the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in 70 CE. 
IV. An Ideology of Resistance
-A very popular worldview among 1st century Palestinian Jews was apocalypticism. Those who held this view believed that God revealed to them the near future, according to which God would soon intervene in history and overthrow the forces of evil (esp. their foreign oppressors) and establish his kingdom on earth.

-Written apocalyptic sources include the Old Testament book of Daniel (probably written around the time of the Maccabean revolt), many writings of the Essene community (preserved in the Dead Sea Scrolls), and “apocalypses” that were written in the inter-testamental period.

-The apocalyptic worldview originated around the time of the Maccabbean Revolt. It was developed as a new explanation as to why God’s chosen people were not able to enjoy an autonomous existence, without foreign domination, in the Land their God had promised to them.

-Prior to apocalypticism, the explanation was that the Jews had sinned, or otherwise were unfaithful to their God Yahweh, and that foreign oppression was a punishment for this. This explanation can be found in many books of the Old Testament (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, and Hosea).

-However, many Jews became dissatisfied with this answer because it didn’t explain the Jewish experience very well.
  • The righteous, obedient Jews suffered as well. 
  • The Jews remained oppressed by foreign domination even after collectively repenting and recommitting themselves to Yahweh. 
-As a result, a new explanation for these facts arose: apocalypticism. Apocalypticism includes the following defining features:


(i) Cosmic dualism:
  • There are two cosmic forces at work in the universe: the forces of good and the forces of evil. 
  • The forces of good were headed by Yahweh, and the forces of evil were headed by God’s enemy, Satan. 
  • On God’s side were the good angels and life, and on Satan’s side where the demons and death. There is no middle ground: everyone is either with God or with Satan. You had to be aligned with one or the other. 
  • World history is split into two ages: the present age and the age to come. The present age is the age of sin and the devil. All in the present age are destined to suffer under the forces of evil. 
  • For some reason, God has allowed the forces of evil to reign during this age, but in the age to come, God will overcome the forces of darkness and the forces of good will rule forever. During this time, God will eliminate the forces of evil. This will include God overthrowing the foreign occupiers of the land of the Jews, and establishing the Kingdom of God on earth forever. 
(ii) Historical pessimism:
  • All creation has become corrupt from human sin and from Satan’s activity. 
  • Until the new age arrives, things will not improve. 
  • In fact, things will only get worse. This will be so even if God’s people are obedient and faithful to him. 
(iii) Ultimate vindication:
  • At the end, in the age to come, God will intervene on behalf of his people and vindicate his name. 
  • This victory is certain, as God is the creator and ruler of the universe, and even Satan and his minions are his creation. 
  • The universal corruption of God’s creation will be overcome with God’s universal redemption of his creation. 
  • God will permanently destroy the forces of evil and establish an everlasting kingdom of righteousness. 
  • The destruction of the forces of evil will involve a final judgment from which no one can escape. He will even raise from the dead those who died without punishment during their earthly lives. 
(iv) Imminence:
  • Those who look for God’s victory should hold on and stay faithful to him, 
  • for the age to come is going to happen very soon. 
  • People should repent and prepare for this imminent event. 
Key quote: “Some of the earliest traditions about Jesus portray him as a Jewish apocalypticist who responded to the political and social crises of his day, including the domination of his nation by a foreign power, by proclaiming that his generation was living at the end of the age, that God would soon intervene on behalf of his people, sending a cosmic judge from heaven, the Son of Man who would destroy the forces of evil and set up God’s kingdom. In preparation for his coming, the people of Israel needed to turn to God, trusting him as a kindly parent and loving one another as his special children. Those who refused to accept his message would be liable to the judgment of God, soon to arrive with the coming Son of Man.” (p. 123)



Notes: Chapter 6 of Ehrman's Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium

Notes: Erhman’s Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millenium, Ch. 6

Topic: The basic tools and source scholars uss to reconstruct the Historical Jesus

Preliminaries: Sources of Evidence

-Recall that source criticism is the study of the sources behind the material in the Gospels:

  • Matthew
  • Mark
  • Luke
  • John

-We've seen that the majority of scholars argue that the probable sources of these gospels are:
  • Mark: the earliest gospel written (sources for Matt. and Lk.)
  • Q: the material common to Matt. and Lk. that is not found in Mk
  • M: the material unique to Matt.
  • L: the material unique to Lk.
  • (Paul’s letters are even earlier source (50s CE) s, but they don’t seem to be used by the gospel authors to construct their gospels.)
-These are the earliest verifiable sources of evidence for Jesus we have.

-The material of each source is independent of the others.

-Three other sources:
  • The Gospel of John
  • The Gospel of Thomas
  • The Gospel of Peter
-These sources are later.
-They are therefore not taken to be as trustworthy as the other sources.

Dating the Sources

-Canonical Sources:
  • Paul’s letter’s: 50s CE
  • Q: 50s-60s CE
  •  Mk: 65-75 CE
  • Matt and Lk: 80-85 CE
  • Jn: 90-95
-Non-Canonical Sources:
  • Gospel of Thomas: 100-120 CE
  • Gospel of Peter: 120-130 CE
Evaluating our Sources
-We’ve seen some reasons why scholars can’t take the Gospels and other sources of information about Jesus at face value.
-Because of this, they sift these sources by means of a number of criteria.
These criteria help scholars distinguish what Jesus probably did and didn’t say and do.

-Three Basic General Historical Rules of Thumb:

1. Early strata: earlier sources are less likely to be distorted and more likely to preserve accurate information than later sources.

2. Absence of theological adornment: Accounts with highly developed theology are less likely to be historically accurate.

3. Absence of author bias: Statements supporting author bias are less credible than those that don’t.

-Once the early sources containing eyewitness testimony have been identified, scholars apply more exacting criteria.
-These are called criteria of authenticity: criteria for determining what units of material within the sources probably indicate what Jesus said and did.
-Ehrman discusses three criteria of authenticity scholars use:
1. Multiple independent attestation: A unit of material attested by more than one independent source is more likely to be authentic than a unit attested by just one source.

Examples:
  • Jesus began his ministry in association with John the Baptist (Mark, Q, John).
  • Jesus had brothers (Mark, John, Paul’s letters).
  • One of his brothers was named ‘James’ (Mark, Paul, Josephus).
  • Jesus told parables that likened the kingdom of God to a seed (Mark, Q, Gospel of Thomas).
2. Embarrassment: If a unit of material does not support, or works against, the agenda of the early church, then it is probably authentic.

Examples:
  • Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist
  • Jesus was betrayed by his closest followers
  • Jesus was crucified
3. Contextual credibility: A unit of material that conforms to the historical and social context of 1stcentury Palestine is more probably authentic than one that does not.
  • Unlike the other two criteria, this one often has a negative function of ruling out inauthentic material.
 Examples:
  • Gnostic sayings in the Gospel of Thomas
  • Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus in John
  • Gospel of John’s report that people feared confessing Jesus as Messiah would be put out of the synagogue
Putting it All Together: How to Reconstruct the Historical Jesus
-Historical Jesus scholars reconstruct the most probable account of who Jesus was by:
  • finding the earliest and most credible sources, 
  • using objective criteria to determine which units of material within these sources are probably authentic
• The earliest sources are, in chronological order: Paul’s letters, Q, Mark, M, and L.

• Later, less reliable sources that may have some eyewitness information are the canonical gospel of John, and the non-canonical gospels of Peter and of Thomas.

• The criteria applied to these sources include:

(1) early strata
(2) lack of theological adornment
(3) absence of author bias
(4) multiple independent attestation
(5) embarrassment, and
(6) contextual credibility

• The material from our earliest sources that can be verified by passing these criteria are then used to reconstruct an account of who Jesus probably was, and what he probably said and did.

What We Can’t Know: Examples
  •  Virgin birth
  • Born in Bethlehem
  • Visited by wise men who followed a star
  • The census
  • Adoration of Jesus in the temple after his birth
-These all fail to pass the criteria above
-They therefore can’t be established historically

What We Can Know: Examples
  •  Jesus was raised in Nazareth
  • He had brothers and sisters
  • He was born and raised a Jew
  • He spoke Aramaic
  • His parents were Joseph and Mary
  • Baptized by John
-These all pass the criteria above
-They can therefore be established as historically probable

Notes: Chapter 5 of Ehrman's Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium

Notes: Ehrman’s Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium, Chapter 5

Other Christian Sources Besides the Gospels?

Key Ehrman quote: “Despite a good deal of media hype in recent years, a lot of people still don’t realize that we have other Gospels that did not make it into the New Testament. Lots of other Gospels, in fact – over couple of dozen of them. Many of these Gospels make for fascinating reading and can be of real significance for a scholar interested in knowing about how Jesus came to be understood in later times. But most of them are latecomers – the bulk of them date from the third to the eighth centuries, hundreds of years after Jesus himself. And nearly all of them are based on the New Testament Gospels themselves. For these reasons, they are not, as a rule, useful for the historian seeking independent verification of the things Jesus said and did.” (p. 65)

Christian Sources Outside the New Testament: 
  • The Infancy Gospel of Thomas: largely historically worthless.
  • The Gospel of Peter: contains perhaps a few scraps of reliable information about Jesus trial and death, but largely legendary in character (On this latter point, see, especially its account of Jesus’ resurrection).
  • The Coptic Gospel of Thomas: contains some independent sayings of Jesus not found in the synoptic gospels (Matt., Mk. And Lk.) or John, but was probably written in the second century, and is pervaded with later, gnostic theology.
Sub-conclusion: “In sum, there does not appear to be much information about the historical Jesus outside the canon of the New Testament. . .Even though there are lots of other Gospels out there, they are almost certainly entirely late and legendary. To be sure, the Gospel of Peter may theoretically provide some corroborating information about Jesus’ last hours, and the Coptic Gospel of Thomas may preserve some independently attested sayings of Jesus. But even on a generous estimate, these books will not provide any significant help in our quest. No matter how you slice it, you have to rely on the New Testament if you want to know about the life of the historical Jesus.” (p. 78)

Christian Sources Within the New Testament:

Paul’s letters (circa 51-58 CE): 
-These are the earliest written Christian sources we have – earlier even than the four Gospels, and perhaps even Q -- and they do contain information about Jesus. 
-Unfortunately (a) they do not contain much – the information could fit on a 3” x 5” notecard – and (b) the little they say only corroborates what the four Gospels already say:
  • Jesus was born of a woman (Gal. 4:4). Shocker! 
  • He was born a Jew (Gal. 4:4). 
  • He was reputedly from the lineage of King David (Rom. 1:3). 
  • He had brothers (1 Cor. 9:5). 
  • One of his brothers was named ‘James’ (Gal. 1:19). 
  • He had twelve disciples (1 Cor. 15:5). 
  • He conducted ministry among the Jews (Rom. 15:8). 
  • He had a last meal with his disciples on the night he was betrayed (1 Cor. 11:23). 
  • Paul knows what Jesus said at his last meal (1 Cor. 11:23-25). 
  • Jesus died by crucifixion (1 Cor. 2:2). 
  • Jesus said Christians shouldn’t divorce (1 Cor. 7:11; cf. Mk. 10:11-12). 
  • Jesus said Christians should pay their preacher (1 Cor. 9:14; cf. Lk. 10:7). 
  • Christians should pay their taxes (Rom. 13:7; cf. Mk. 12:17). 
  • Christians should fulfill the Law of Moses by loving their neighbors as themselves (Gal. 5:14; cf. Matt. 22:39-40). 
Key Ehrman quote: “Paul does say a lot about the importance of Jesus, especially the importance of his death, resurrection, and imminent return from heaven. But in terms of historical information, what I’ve just listed is about all there is. Imagine what we wouldn’t know about Jesus if these letters were our only sources of information. We hear nothing here of the details of Jesus’ birth or parents or early life, nothing of his baptism or temptation in the wilderness; nothing of his teaching about the coming kingdom of God. We have no indication that he ever told parables, that he ever healed anyone, cast out a demon, or raised the dead. We learn nothing of his transfiguration or triumphal entry, nothing of his cleansing of the Temple, nothing of his interrogation by the Sanhedrin or trial before Pilate, nothing of his being rejected in favor of Barabbas, of his being mocked, of his being flogged, and so on. The historian who wants to know about the traditions concerning Jesus – or indeed, about the historical Jesus himself – will not be much helped by the surviving letters of Paul. Or indeed, by the other authors of the New Testament.” (p. 79)


The Sources used by the Authors of the Canonical Gospels:

Mark’s gospel: This is the first gospel written (60s CE). Matthew and Luke use it as a major primary source for their gospels (Matthew has over 500 verses parallel to Mark’s 661 verses; Luke has about 330 verses of Mark).

The Q Source: This is the large body of material common to Matthew and Luke that is not found in Mark. Here we have lots of information about Jesus’, especially what he said. It’s also very early (50s- 60s CE).

The M Source: This is the material unique to Matthew. It’s also early – earlier than Matthew, at least.

The L Source: This is the material unique to Luke. It, too, is early – earlier than Luke, at least.

Notes: Chapter 4 of Ehrman's Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium

Notes: Ehrman’s Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium, Chapter 4
What Do Our Earliest Non-Christian Sources Say About Jesus?

Key Ehrman quote: “[According to the] commonsensical view, Jesus’ impact on the society of his day must have been immense, like a comet striking the earth. In that case, we could expect to find scores of accounts of his words and deeds written by contemporaries outside the group of his closest disciples. Surely people had a lot to say about this, whether his friends or enemies . . . Unfortunately, the commonsensical view is not even close to being right – biblical epics on the wide screen (the source of many people’s knowledge about the Bible!) notwithstanding. If we look at the historical record itself . . . it appears that whatever his influence on subsequent generations, Jesus’ impact on society was practically nil, less like a comet striking the planet than a stone tossed into the ocean.” (p. 56)

Early “Pagan” Sources:
Pliny the Younger (112 CE), Epistle 10.96: “They were accustomed to meet on a fixed day before dawn and sing responsively a hymn to Christ as to a god, and bound themselves to a solemn oath, not to any wicked deeds, but never to commit any fraud, theft, adultery, never to falsify their word, not to deny a trust when they should be called upon to deliver it up. When this was over, it was their custom to depart and to assemble again to partake of a meal—but ordinary and innocent food.”
  • In this letter of correspondence to Emperor Trajan, we learn of the practices of some early Christians. 
  • Unfortunately, we learn nothing about Jesus’ words or deeds before his crucifixion.
Suetonius (113-114 CE): from The Twelve Caesars, Life of Claudius 25: "Since the Jews constantly made disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus, he expelled them from Rome."
  • It’s not clear that this is a reference to Jesus (‘Chrestus’ was a Greek name), but it may well be. 
  • Unfortunately, the reference in the passage to “the instigation of Chrestus” must be a reference to Christians, and not Jesus, as the passage is referring to public disturbances twenty years after Jesus’ crucifixion.
Tacitus (115 CE), Annals 15.44: "Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their center and become popular. Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing he city, as of hatred against mankind".
  • Here we do have a non-Christian Roman historian reporting information about Jesus. 
  • He reports that Jesus was crucified by Pontius Pilate, that a sect believed he was the Christ, and that they were commonly called ‘Christians’. 
  • Unfortunately, we already have reports of this from earlier Christian sources, and so Tacitus provides no new information about Jesus. I
  • It’s perhaps worth noting that Tacitus got it wrong that Pilate was a procurator (he was a prefect).
Early Jewish Sources:
Josephus (93-94 CE), Antiquities 18.3.3: "Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man, for he was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews, and many of the Gentiles. He was the Christ; and when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him, for he appeared to them alive again the third day, as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him; and the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct to this day."

  • The authenticity of this passage is extremely controversial -- for example, we know from his sources that Josephus never converted to Christianity.
  • Furthermore, the fact that it was Christians who preserved and translated Josephus’ Antiquities through the centuries raise worries of tampering. 
  • For this reason and others, most scholars (N.B., including William Lane Craig and most conservative NT scholars -EA) think the “Christianized” statements are later Christian interpolations. 
  • (For a summary of scholarly discussion on the authenticity of the passage, see (e.g.) http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/testimonium.html. -EA). 
  • However, most scholars think the text probably contained an authentic version of the passage from Josephus. The passage without the added interpolations reads as follows: "Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man. He was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews, and many of the Gentiles. And when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men among us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him; and the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct to this day." (N.B., this is the version William Lane Craig and most conservative NT scholars accept as well -EA)
The Talmud (circa 200s CE): "On the eve of Passover Yeshu was hanged. For forty days before the execution took place, a herald went forth and cried, "He is going forth to be stoned because he has practiced sorcery and enticed Israel to apostasy. Any one who can say anything in his favour, let him come forward and plead on his behalf." But since nothing was brought forward in his favour he was hanged on the eve of the Passover! - Ulla retorted: Do you suppose that he was one for whom a defence could be made? Was he not a _Mesith_ [enticer], concerning him Scripture says, _Neither shalt though spare, neither shalt thou conceal him?_ With Yeshu however it was different, for he was connected with the government for royalty [i.e., influential]. Our Rabbis taught: Yeshu had five disciples, Matthai, Nakai, Nezer, Buni, and Todah.” (Sanhedrin 43a)
  • This passage seems to be referring to Jesus’ crucifixion, as well as to his disciples (but notice that it says he was hanged, not crucified, and that he only had five – not twelve – disciples).
  • Unfortunately, the source is was written over 150 years after the events described, and because of this, most scholars doubt its historical worth as a source about Jesus.
Conclusion: We have no non-Christian sources that give us new information about the life of Jesus from the first 100 years after his death.

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Notes: Chapter 3 of Ehrman's Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium

Notes: Ehrman’s Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium, Chapter 3
Evaluating the primary sources: who wrote the Gospels, and when did they write them?

Authorship: Who Wrote the Gospels?
-The Gospels we have in their current form say that they were written by two of Jesus’ original disciples (Matthew the tax collector, and John, the “beloved disciple”), and by two friends of the apostles (Peter’s secretary, Mark, and Paul’s traveling companion, Luke).

-The problem is that we have strong reasons to doubt these claims.
  • The Gospels were originally published anonymously: they didn’t originally have the titles of “The Gospel According to Matthew”, “The Gospel According to Mark”, etc. 
  • None of the Gospels claim they were written by an eyewitness. 
  • They all describe the events they discuss in the third person (perhaps John is an exception. We’ll discuss this later.). 
  • The Gospels were all written in Greek, but the original disciples were Jews who spoke Aramaic or Hebrew. 
  • About 90% of the population was completely illiterate, including those in the socioeconomic classes to which the disciples belonged. In fact, the Book of Acts (4:13) states that Peter and John were illiterate. Only the rich elite could afford the leisure and training to learn Greek. 
-The earliest reports we have that discuss the authorship of the Gospels are from a Christian named Papius from 120-130 CE. This is late testimony as it stands, but there are further reasons to doubt that it supports traditional authorship. He makes two main claims about their authorship:
  • Claim 1: During his missionary journeys, Peter would talk about the sayings and deeds of Jesus, and Mark would write them down, although not in order. Some take this to be a reference to the Gospel of Mark. However, note that Papius thinks Mark was not written by an eyewitness but that it is a second-hand account, and that Mark modified what he received to order to the material.
  • Claim 2: Matthew wrote down the sayings (but not the deeds) of Jesus in Hebrew, and “everyone interpreted them as they could”. Some take him to be referring to the Gospel of Matthew. However, the earliest copies we have of Matthew are all in Greek, not Hebrew. Furthermore, Matthew contains much more than just the words of Jesus.It thus seems that he’s not referring to Matthew.
-The next earliest report we have that discuss the authorship of the Gospels is from the Christian bishop Irenaeus near the end of the 2nd century CE. He claims that only four gospels are accurate and divinely inspired (Matthew, Mark. Luke, and John). This testimony is late as it stands CE (about 150 years or so after the events), but there are further reasons to be suspicious:
  • Irenaeus was involved in intense debates about orthodoxy, during a time when very many Christian sects, with very different views of who Jesus was.
  • All these other competing Christian sects appealed to their written gospels and other texts as proof of their sect as “orthodox”.
  • Irenaeus wanted to unify the church by ruling out all other versions of Christianity as heretical.
  • It would greatly help his cause if he could make it the official church position that just the traditional four gospels were authoritative.
-Luke (1:1-4) reveals that many attempted to write down an account of the life and deeds of Jesus, and that he was doing the same, from a third-person, non- eyewitness standpoint. He also implies that the other accounts are inaccurate. Since we know he relies on Mark’s gospel as a source, this seems to imply that he thinks Mark’s gospel wasn’t completely accurate.

-For these reasons and others, most scholars think the gospels were written anonymously, and not by eyewitnesses, in the Roman Empire outside of Palestine.

Dates: When Were the Gospels Written?

-Most historians date the Gospels as follows:
  • Mark: mid-60s to mid-70s CE
  • Matthew and Luke:80-85 CE
  • John:90-95CE
-Historians agree that Jesus died around 30CE

-So, there is a 35-65 year gap between the historical events of Jesus’ ministry and their being written down in the Gospels

-This gives scholars pause about taking the gospels at face value as 100% reliable testimony.

  • Imagine trying to write the first written account of the life of JFK today, without the aid of photographs, videos, newspapers, the Internet, or any other media sources, but only reports from second- or third- or fourth or fifth-hand accounts of his life and career.

-A final consideration in evaluating the Gospels as sources of material about Jesus:
  • The original material behind the Gospels was based on oral traditions about Jesus, which were primarily developed and dispersed by evangelists and ordinary Christians, as the Christian message spread from Palestine to the outer Roman Empire
  • The game “telephone” illustrates how orally transmitted material can quickly and unintentionally change by transmission from one person to another.o The material was told with the aim of converting non-Christians, and to develop their understanding of the faith.o The Roman Empire was immense, and so there was no reliable way for the apostles to prevent alteration of the material.
-For these reasons and others, most scholars think we can’t take the gospels at face value as 100% reliable historical sources about Jesus

Notes: Chapter 2 of Ehrman's Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium


Notes: Ehrman’s Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium, Chapter 2

Why we can’t take the Gospels at face value: two example discrepancies.


1. First Discrepancy: When Did Jesus Die?

-All four Gospels say that Jesus died some time during the Jewish Feast of Passover
-However, they disagree about when it when it occurred

  • Mark reports (14:12) that he ate his last meal with his disciples on the day of Preparation for the Passover, and that (15:25) he was taken and crucified at 9a.m. on the morning after the Passover meal. 
  • John reports (13:1) that he ate his last meal with his disciples before the festival of the Passover, and that (19:14) he was crucified at about noon, on the day over the Passover. 

-The accounts cannot be reconciled (meal and crucifixion are both reported to have occurred on different days and times).
-Why did John change the narrative? To make the crucifixion fit his overall theme of Jesus as the Lamb of God that is sacrificed on the Passover.

2. Second Discrepancy: Where Was Jesus’ Original Hometown?

-Mark, the earliest gospel, doesn’t include the stories of Jesus’ birth.
-The accounts of Jesus’ birth and surrounding events occur only in Matthew and Luke.
-However, the two accounts differ on a number of points, including Jesus’ original hometown:

  • Matthew (1:18-2:23) depicts Jesus’ original hometown as Bethlehem. Jesus is born there. The three wise men then tell Herod that a future king of Israel is born in Bethlehem, after which they spend two years following a star to greet him and give him gifts at their home(nota manger). Herod sends troops to kill all children in Bethlehem aged two and under (to protect his kingship from Jesus). Mary and Joseph are warned of this, and so they all flee to Egypt until Herod’s death. However, they decide not to go back home to Bethlehem in Judea, as they fear the new ruler there: Herod’s son, Archelaus. Instead, they decide to move to Nazareth in Galilee and make a home there. 
  • By contrast, Luke (chapters 1-2) depict Jesus’ original hometown as Nazareth. They go from Nazareth to Bethlehem to follow a decree from Caesar Augustus for a worldwide census, according to which everyone is to travel to the hometown of their ancestors. Luke claims that Joseph is of the lineage of King David, who is from Bethlehem, and so that is where they go. When they get there, Mary gives birth to Jesus in a manger (no room at the inn). After all of the Jewish rituals related to birth are performed, they return home to Nazareth. 
-Note the list of other differences in the two accounts:
  • Wise men come to worship Jesus in one, shepherds in the other 
  • The cause of migration is the wrath of Herod in one, but Caesar’s worldwide census in the other. 
-Some of the elements of the narrative aren’t contradictory, but nonetheless historically and scientifically implausible:
  • Following a moving star? And how close to the ground must the star have been to pick out Jesus’ home? 
  • A worldwide (or at least empire-wide) census? Despite the existence of a multitude of secular historical records from the time – including a biography from Caesar Augustus himself -- there is no independent attestation to such a major event in any of them. In any case, why would Caesar have all citizens register at the hometown of their ancient ancestors from 1,000 years ago? How would one even go about this? 
  • We know from Josephus that Quirinius’ governorship in Syria was 10 years afterHerod’s death, but Luke depicts their reigns as contemporaneous. 
-Given that the accounts contain these historical inaccuracies, why did they add them?

-The most natural explanation is that they added them to make theological points:
  • The authors of these two Gospels read the Old Testament book of Micah, which says that a future Messiah would come out of Bethlehem (5:2). 
  • However, they both knew that Jesus was from Nazareth, not Bethlehem. 
  • So they had to add stories to support their theological point that Jesus is the Messiah. 
-Conclusion: we can’t take the Gospel accounts in the New Testament at face value. Rather, we have to use historical methods to distinguish the accurate from the inaccurate portions of these documents. Once this is done, we can use the accurate portions to reconstruct a historically accurate portrait of Jesus.

[Other examples of editing by the Gospel authors not discussed in Ehrman's book:

i) Jesus' anger: Mark has Jesus groan in Mark 8:12. A number of translations say he sighed deeply in his spirit, but the word is the same as that for a groan. Mark also has Jesus express anger (e.g., Mark 3:5); Luke omits the bit about anger in the parallel (Luke 6:10), while Matthew omits the passage altogether. In Mark 10:14, Mark has Jesus express indignation at his disciples; Matt. and Lk. omit this attribution in their parallels (Matt. 19:14; Luke 18:16). Etc.

ii) The view among Jesus' relatives about Jesus' sanity: Relatives say he is out of his mind in Mark 3:21. Both Matthew and Luke omit it.

iii) Jesus' view of non-Jews: The commissioning of the disciples on their first missionary journey occurs in Matthew, but not in Luke. This follows a theme in Luke of portraying Jesus of the savior of both the Jews and the Gentiles, and of having Jesus favorably disposed to the Gentiles. Thus, Luke leaves out Jesus' references to non-Jews as pigs and dogs that are found in Mark and Matthew (Mark 7:27; Matt. 15:26; and arguably Matt. 7:6).  --EA]

Notes: Overview of Ehrman's Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium

Outline of Ehrman’s Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium

The Big Picture: Chapter 1 does the stage-setting and states the book’s main thesis: Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet. Chapters 2-3 explain why we can’t take the gospels at face value. Chapters 4-5 sift the sources for the historical Jesus to determine which sources are the most credible. Chapter 6 states and explains the core historical methodology scholars use to reconstruct the historical Jesus from these sources. Chapters 7-12 apply the lessons and historical methodology laid out in chapters 2-6: we can apply the historical tools of source criticism and the criteria of authenticity to reconstruct the historical Jesus.Chapter 13 sketches an account of how the church’s conception of Jesus evolved from that of an apocalyptic preacher to the Son of God.

Part I: (Ch. 1) The main thesis introduced: Jesus was an apocalypticist.

Ch. 1: Christians from the present all the way through the past have believed that the end of the world would occur in their generation. There is a good reason for this: Jesus thought so, too.

Part II (Ch. 2-3): We can’t take the canonical Gospels’ portraits of Jesus at face value
Ch. 2: There are clear cases where the gospel authors modify their sources to score a theological point.

Ch. 3: The gospels were written anonymously, 35-65 years after the events they describe, by Greek authors who are using second-, third, fourth-hand information that was based on oral traditions about Jesus.

Part III (Chs. 4-5): Despite this, the canonical gospels are the best sources we’ve got

Ch. 4: The non-Christian sources from the 1st century (whether pagan or Jewish) contain virtually nothing about Jesus.

Ch. 5: The Christian sources outside the canonical gospels are of two main sorts: (a) the other New Testament documents, and (b) extra-canonical writings. The information in (a) about Jesus’ earthly ministry can fit on a 3x5 notecard, and while there are lots and lots of (b)-type sources, they are much later, are obviously derivative, and unreliable.

Part IV (Ch. 6): Happily, we have historical methods that can help us reliably reconstruct the historical Jesus from our sources

Ch. 6: We can reconstruct the historical Jesus by (i) isolating our earliest, most reliable sources about him, and (ii) applying criteria of authenticity to them, to see which units of material within those sources probably go back to Jesus’ life and ministry.

Part V (Chs. 7-12): Reconstructing the historical Jesus: Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet
Ch. 7: Stage-setting chapter: a sketch of Jesus’ environment in 1st-century Palestine
Ch. 8: The basic case for Jesus as an apocalyptic prophet
Ch. 9: A closer look 1: the apocalyptic prophet hypothesis makes best sense of his core teachings

Ch. 10: A closer look 2: the apocalyptic prophet hypothesis makes best sense of his ethical teachings

Ch. 11: A closer look 3: the apocalyptic prophet hypothesis makes best sense of his actions

Ch. 12: A closer look 4: the apocalyptic prophet hypothesis makes best sense of his last days

Part VI (Ch. 13): How his followers’ conception of Jesus evolved

Ch. 13: His followers’ conception evolved from apocalyptic prophet to Son of God as it spread from 1stcentury Palestine to the outer Roman Empire.

Quote of the Day

"In my paper, I suggested that the lack of a "material" cause is at last as counter-intuitive as the lack of an "efficient" cause. Craig's response is interesting. There are, he says, just three possibilities with respect to the origin of the universe: "the infinitude of the past, creation ex nihilo, [and] spontaneous origination ex nihilo." Assuming (as we have agreed to do for the sake of argument) that Craig's philosophical arguments against the infinite past are sound, we must choose between creation ex nihilo and uncaused origination ex nihilo. Craig says he prefers the creation hypothesis, since it involves only one counter-intuitive element, whereas the spontaneous origination hypothesis "is doubly counter-intuitive in that it denies of the universe both a material and (especially) an efficient cause.". . .[T]here is a serious gap in Craig's argument for creation ex nihilo, since the trilemma -- either the infinite past, or creation ex nihilo, or spontaneous origination ex nihilo -- fails to exhaust the logical alternatives. There is at least one other possibility that Craig fails to consider -- viz., that God made the world out of something-or-other that is (or "was") eternal.

I confess that I do not have a candidate for a material cause of the universe. . .we don't seem to be acquainted with any. . .eternal "stuffs" out of which God might have made the universe. But that shouldn't stop Craig. We don't encounter eternal persons either, but he thinks his commitment to P1 [i.e., the premise that everything that begins to exist has a cause of its existence. -EA] forces him to postulate one. Why, then, does he not simply conclude that there must have been an eternal material cause, on the ground that he can thereby avoid, not only the "double absurdity" of spontaneous generation, but also the "single absurdity" of creation ex nihilo?"


Morriston, Wes. "Causes and Beginnings in the Kalam Argument: Reply to Craig", Faith & Philosophy 19:2 (2002), pp. 238-239.

Quote of the Day

"...[O]ne can have a system of beliefs that is similar to those which Plantinga describes, involving massive misconceptions which are presupposed in many beliefs. The variety of unreliable sets of cognitive faculties is endless. And clearly, a very great many of these will lead to maladaptive action, including very many of those which are of the type Plantinga described. Moreover, it should be intuitively clear that if one were to select one of the unreliable cognitive systems at random, it would take an enormous stroke of luck to get one that was actually adaptive, that is, to get an unreliable cognitive system in which the falsehoods cancelled each other out in just the right way, so to speak, as to allow for adaptive action. Another way of thinking about the issue: imagine that cognitive systems producing mostly false beliefs are represented by points in a plane, and someone throws a dart at random at the plane; then it is hard to avoid the strong intuition that we would almost certainly not hit a point representing a cognitive system that in addition to producing mostly false beliefs was also roughly as adaptive as reliable systems might be....The idea behind this assessment is that a great deal more can go wrong with unreliable cognitive faculties than with reliable cognitive faculties."

-Mirza, Omar. Naturalism and Darwin's Doubt: A Study of Plantinga's Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism. PhD Dissertation, University of California, Berkeley, 2003, pp. 161-162.


Notes on Morriston's "Creation Ex Nihilo and the Big Bang"

Notes on Morriston’s “ Creation  Ex Nihilo  and the Big Bang ”,  Philo  5:1 (2002), pp. 23-33. 0. Introduction (fill in later) 1. ...