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]