Book Club: Ask Bart Ehrman Anything II

Below is the second installment of Ehrman’s responses to Dish reader questions (the first part is here):

What do you make of the evangelical response to your book, How God Became Jesus?

For a somewhat fuller response, see my blog post. Here I can say that the five evangelical Christians who responded are all good scholars. The purpose of their book was to engage my historical claims at a number of points. Some of the responses I found to be interesting. I ehrman_bart_12_020didn’t actually find any of them convincing, and on the whole I have to say that I was disappointed by the book. What I had hoped was that the book would provide a different historical narrative from the one that I laid out in How Jesus Became God. The respondents regularly accuse me of engaging in “bad” history, but they don’t themselves engage in any historical reconstruction at all. So how is one supposed to compare their views with mine?

The book really is little more than an attack on this point or the other in my discussion. I would love to see how they can imagine that their thesis, that God became Jesus, can be established on historical grounds, rather than theological or religious grounds . My view is that it is impossible for historians to demonstrate what God has done: that’s the province of theologians. If what they want to do is present a theological perspective that differs from my historical one, I have absolutely no problem at all with that. What I object to is their decision to embrace a theological perspective and claim that it is history.

What if anything might change your mind and cause you to again become a believer?

Hmmm … Good question!

I guess a revelation from the Almighty would do it! I’m actually, personally, prone more to belief than disbelief, and would prefer, at the end of the day, to be a believer. Maybe one day I’ll become one again, even though at this stage of my life, I doubt it. For it to happen, realistically, I would need to come to a more comprehensive, synthetic understanding of how this world makes sense if there is a God who is in some sense (any sense) active in it. For me, right now, that simply doesn’t seem to be the case. So many innocent people suffer unspeakable agony and horrific deaths each and every minute, hour, and day – ravaged by starvation, drought, epidemics, earthquakes, hurricanes, tsunamis, not to mention war and violence. I simply do not see the hand of God in any of this. I do know what the “answers” are that people give – I used to give them myself, all the time. I just can’t believe them anymore. Maybe at some point that won’t matter to me, although I do side more with Ivan in the Brothers Karamazov on this one, as I explain in my book God’s Problem….

Which religions, if any, deal better with the problem of evil and suffering than Christianity?

I’m not sure any of them deal with it in a way that I find intellectually satisfying, although since I wrote my book God’s Problem I’ve had a lot of people tell me that they have found Buddhism to be much better on just this issue.

Given your thesis that Jesus was not buried in a tomb, based on the evidence that the Romans would not have allowed it, what do you make of the archaeological evidence of crucifixion victims in tombs?

Great question! Unfortunately, we have only one piece of archaeological evidence to go on and it simply doesn’t tell us what we would like to know. In 1968 the remains of a crucified man, named Yehohanan, were discovered in Israel. His skeleton – ankle pierced with an iron stake from crucifixion – was decently buried in an ossuary. This shows, it is argued, that it is conceivable that something similar happened with Jesus. I would agree that this makes it conceivable. Unfortunately, as I have also pointed out, we do not have even the slightest bit of evidence to tell us what happened in Yehohanan’s case, and so we have no way of knowing if it is analogous to the case of Jesus.

Why was an exception made in Yehohanon’s case to place his body in a common tomb? Was his family well-connected? Was he an aristocrat? Was he crucified on the birthday of an emperor (Philo says that such persons were allowed burial)? Was he crucified for insurgency against the state (like Jesus) or for a lower crime (it makes a big difference!). Moreover – was he placed in a tomb the very day he was crucified? We have no way to know. Was his body left to decompose and be eaten by scavengers (the usual punishment) before being entombed? We don’t know. In other words, precisely what we would need to know in order to know if Yehohanan’s case was similar to that of Jesus we don’t know.

What we do know is that there is no evidence that Jesus was executed on the birthday of an emperor; he was not an influential person with high connections (he was not even known in Jerusalem before he appeared the week before); he did not have powerful family members who could intercede on his behalf; his own followers had fled from the scene; and he was not crucified for low-level crimes but on political charges of insurgency. Whatever was the reason that Yehohanan was given a decent burial, it is hard to think why an exception to normal Roman practice would have been made in the case of Jesus (especially given what we know about Pontius Pilate).

I should also say that other scholars have pointed out that since there were thousands of crucified victims in antiquity, and these are the only skeletal remains of a crucified victim to survive, it appears that Yehohanan’s case was highly exceptional, not typical.

What do you think of N.T. Wright’s work on the historical Jesus and early Christianity?

Tom Wright is incredibly prolific and is a brilliant spokesperson for traditional, conservative Christianity. He is also an erudite scholar of enormous breadth. But as it turns out, I disagree with him on almost everything! We have only had one real public debate, dealing with the problem of suffering and how it should affect one’s faith in God. We did not at all see eye to eye. Tom has a kind of global vision of Scripture where he makes the entire 66 books add up together to one grand narrative that he sees as a revelation from God. I see 66 different books written by different authors at different times for different reasons with different messages and different understandings of God, the world, the human condition, and so on. Tom and I simply aren’t on the same page.

It’s seems almost impossible, when writing a book like this, to keep personal biases out of the work. Can you describe how you thought about separating the two during the writing of the book?

My view is that everyone has biases, that there is no way to escape having biases, and that the people you need to look out for are the one who claim that they don’t have biases! Those are the people who want you to agree with them since, after all, they are simply being “objective.” But in fact, they have biases like everyone else, so that their claim is simply a rhetorical strategy.

At the same time, I think there are some biases that are more appropriate for some kinds of research than others. The biases of a historian – e.g., that the past did happen, that there is evidence that some things happened and other things didn’t, that some evidence is better than other evidence, and so on – are appropriate for doing history. On the other hand, the biases of a theologian – e.g. (depending on the theologian) that God both exists and is active in the world and has affected the course of historical events – can be very useful for doing theology, but they are not useful for doing history. And so my view is that a person with those theological views needs to keep those views in check when doing history, just as there are probably views of the critical historian that are not useful for those wanting to do theology.

When I wrote How Jesus Became God I tried to be careful not to make theological claims one way or the other. In the book I do not indicate whether Jesus really was / is God or not, whether he really was raised from the dead, whether he really is living today in heaven, and on on. Those are all theological claim. But my book is a historical account. My view is that Christians and non-Christians can agree with the history I lay out, even if they come to different theological conclusions. (I know that’s the case because before I sent the book into my publisher I gave it to four scholars to read for comments about how to improve it; all four were Christians; all four had no problems with its historical views)

Read the entire Book Club discussion of Ehrman’s book here.

Book Club: Ask Bart Ehrman Anything I

As the first Dish book club draws to a close, the author of How Jesus Became God was gracious enough to answer your questions about his book. Below is the first installment of his responses:

Has changing your mind about a major question, like when Christians believed Jesus to be divine, caused you to rethink any of your other positions about the historical Jesus or early Christianity?

My views of the historical Jesus have not changed at all. Ever since graduate school I have thought that Albert Schweitzer was basically right (though wrong in the details) in understanding Jesus as a Jewish apocalyptic prophet who anticipated that God was soon going to intervene in history in order to overthrow the forces of evil and bring in a good how-jesus-became-godkingdom on earth. That continues to be the most widely held view among critical scholars in Europe and North America. Understanding that Jesus was this kind of teacher/preacher is important for my book, since Jesus almost certainly did not teach his disciples that he was God, but that God’s kingdom was soon to arrive and they needed to prepare for it.

Where my views have changed involves the key question of what Jesus’ followers thought about him after his death. The view I held for many years was that the earliest Christians did not think of Jesus as truly God until late in the first century, when the Gospel of John portrays him as declaring himself to be divine. In doing my research for How Jesus Became God, I became convinced that this was absolutely wrong. The followers of Jesus declared that Jesus was God as soon as they came to believe that he had been raised from the dead. Already at that point they maintained that God had made him a divine being. And that was the beginning of Christology.

Eventually some Christians came to think that it was not at his resurrection that he had been made God, but at his baptism; some came to think that it was earlier, at his conception; and some then came to think that he had been a pre-existent divine being before coming into the world. But it all started not in later decades, but at the very beginning, in the belief that he had been raised from the dead.

You firmly put Jesus in his context as first century Jewish apocalyptic preacher, but are there any ways in which he was different from the other would-be messiahs most of us have never heard of?

Yes indeed! Jesus was certainly different from other ones, for no other reason than that all of us is different from everyone else. So he must, virtually by definition, have been different. His bookclub-beagle-troverarching message was not radically different from the one proclaimed by others (e.g., John the Baptist). But what made him especially different in my judgment is two things. First, he taught that he would be the king of the kingdom that was soon to come (John the Baptist never said any such thing about himself) and that those who followed his specific teachings would be the ones who would enter that kingdom. And second, unlike every other alleged messiah from antiquity, Jesus alone was thought by his disciples to have been raised from the dead. That changed everything, as I try to show in my book.

If the Gospels are as unreliable and contradictory as you make them out to be, why trust any parts of them for information about the historical Jesus?

In many respects the Gospels are like any other historical source for any historical event or person – whether a source from the 50s or the 1950s. Every source has problems, and historians when using sources have to determine what those problems are and how to get around them in order to use the sources to establish what most probably happened in the past. So I don’t believe in having any different approach to the Gospels from that which you would have to any other ancient source – for example, Plutarch, or Suetonius, or Philostratus, or … choose your author!

Scholars have methods for dealing with sources that are contradictory and filled with non-historical information. They are pretty much the methods you yourself use when trying to figure out what really happened when several people tell you different things and sometimes tell you versions of what happened that are obviously biased. You look for elements of their accounts that are consistent with each other (especially if they haven’t conferred to get their stories straight) and that do not reflect the biases they have and that are plausible given everything else you know about the events (general plausibility). That, in rough form, is what historians do when dealing with the Gospels. I should stress that the problem with the Gospels isn’t simply a problem that I have, and these methods for approaching the Gospels are not ones I came up with. All of this is standard material for anyone working in the field of New Testament studies.

Why does the Gospel writer refer to ‘the beloved disciple’ without mentioning his name? Is there a deeper meaning?

That’s been a very long-standing question. Some interpreters have argued that the Beloved Disciple of the Fourth Gospel is someone that we know of otherwise – e.g., John the son of Zebedee, or Lazarus, or Mary Magdalene, and so on. None of these identifications is overly persuasive. It is sometimes thought that he is a symbolic figure who is meant to stand over-against Peter in the Gospel (with whom he is often teamed). Others have thought that he is the source of the author’s information for the Gospel, a disciple known to the community in which the Gospel was written who knew Jesus and was the guarantor of the information found in the Gospel, who did not need to be named because he was well known and was simply called, by his own followers, “the one whom Jesus loved.” I’m not convinced by any of the proposals myself, but don’t have a better one to suggest.

Would it be worthwhile to compose a spare, modern “gospel,” focusing squarely on the historical Jesus, including only the best-attested material, and eliminating some of the more dubious content from the later synoptics?

Yes, that has been tried a number of times – most notably by Thomas Jefferson in the Jefferson Bible (still widely available) and, possibly less notably, and in a different way, by the modern-day Jesus seminar in its book The Five Gospels, which indicates the passages that, in the opinion of the scholars in the seminar, are more likely to be historically authentic.

Could some of the difficulties Islam is having right now be mitigated by textual criticism of Islamic scripture similar to the kind that you engage in?

I wish I knew the answer to that one! But I’m not an expert in Islam, I’m afraid.

What did you think of Reza Aslan’s Zealot, another book on the historical Jesus that’s been in the news?

Aslan is a professor of creative writing, and as a result, and as you would respect, he writes extremely well. Zealot is a real pleasure to read. Unfortunately, Aslan is not trained at the advanced level in the New Testament, classics, ancient history, the history of early Christianity, or any other field of relevance for discussing, authoritatively, the life and teachings of Jesus. And I’m afraid that this shows rather glaringly in his book, as he makes many, many mistakes both about historical detail (e.g, involving Roman history or the history of the early followers of Jesus) and about the Gospels of the New Testament and about Jesus himself. I give lots of examples on my blog in a series of posts that I gave in December (see one example here). The other thing to say is that his overarching thesis is not new, even though he more or less intimates it is. The first scholar of the Enlightenment to write about the historical Jesus (H. Reimarus) had a very similar thesis. I.e., it’s been around since the end of the 18th century and the vast majority of scholars have found in unconvincing, for reasons I lay out, again, at length in my blog.

The second part of his responses will be posted soon. Read the entire Book Club discussion on Ehrman’s book here.

Book Club: Can Modernity Survive Without Christianity?

A reader adds a final twist to the debate:

You started the Dish book club by asking if Christianity can survive modernity, and the discussion that ensued proves, I think, what a challenging – and open – question that remains. Ever since that first post of yours, however, I haven’t been able to shake a different question: can modernity survive without Christianity?

I’m no reactionary, and I have little patience for those who reject, wholesale, the scientific and technological advances of modern life. But glancing at the world around us can be incredibly dispiriting, from our destruction of nature to the rapaciousness of global capitalism to wars and rumors of wars. And that’s to say nothing of the lurking sense many of us have that finding meaning in contemporary life only is becoming more difficult, that there’s a soullessness at the heart of our modern way of life, a rotten center beneath the glittering surface of all our would-be achievements.

In a strange way, what I’ve just described makes me hopeful for the future of Christianity, because I can’t think of circumstances in which the message of Jesus and the core tenets of Christianity are more needed. They teach us that all our achievements have a dark side, that good and evil grow together in history, that our fallibility and fallenness touch everything we do, serving to warn us against unalloyed ambition and striving, and a facile optimism. It surely is no accident that two of the 20th century’s greatest Christian thinkers, Michael Oakeshott and Reinhold Niebuhr, thought the ancient tale of the Tower of Babel especially resonated with our times.

Even more, to borrow Oakeshott’s phrase, Christianity is the religion of non-achievement. Jesus taught us to consider the lilies of the field and take no thought for tomorrow. Could there be a more radical message for our age, an age that grows ever more frantic, ever more competitive, and in which wealth and power are ever more eagerly sought after?

Many of us are doubtful, I think, that we can continue on the path we are treading, that our unceasing more, more, more can be sustainable, or provide happiness. Jesus offers us a way of life that inverts these values, that shows us their futility. This non-instrumental approach to living is more timely than ever.

But most of all – and I know I risk sentimentality here – when reduced to its most basic idea, Christianity holds, and Jesus showed us, that God is love. Love and forgiveness and mercy are deeper than suffering and hate, they are what we are made for, our truest calling. Love is “the greatest of these,” and what Jesus told us to do when he summarized the entirety of the moral law. Man’s failure to love, of course, is a perennial sin. Yet the call to love takes on added resonance when the reach of our power and the consequences of our decisions impact ever more people. At no time in history has the question, “Who is my neighbor?” mattered more, or demanded a more expansive answer. We need to be reminded that the duties of love have no limits, that every human life is precious and fragile, and that “the least of these” particularly demand our attention and care.

Thinking about these matters, I come back again and again to this passage from Romano Guardini, a Jesuit priest, which Walker Percy chose as the epigraph to his novel The Last Gentleman:

We know that the modern world is coming to an end…At the same time, the unbeliever will emerge from the fogs of secularism. He will cease to reap benefit from the values and forces developed by the very Revelation he denies…Loneliness in faith will be terrible. Love will disappear from the face of the public world, but the more precious will be that love which flows from one lonely person to another…The world to come will be filled with animosity and danger, but it will be a world open and clean.

I’ve always thought that modern, Western moral and political thought was more dependent on Christianity than most realize. For a long time we’ve lived in a halfway house, where we want the “values” derived from Christianity – the dignity of the individual, equality, and compassion – without faith itself. As Nietzsche derisively put it, we’ve rejected the Church but not its poison. Maybe what we’re hurtling toward is a moment when having it both ways no longer is tenable. Maybe, as Guardini claims, our dangerous world, in which love is so strikingly absent, will force us to again turn our gaze toward the wandering preacher from Nazareth, whose words we finally will have ears to hear, as if for the first time.

Book Club: Why Does Jesus Need To Be Divine?

A reader writes:

Question: If there is no God, what becomes of Christianity?  I think for many religious people, if there is no God, they would feel that there is no point.  No point to life.  No point to religion.  Christianity would lose its meaning and significance.  It would become a sham.  People have a strong desire for some ultimate meaning, for “truth,” for a final reward or punishment, for an afterlife, and in their view, these things require a deity (how else could they exist?). And if there is no God, then the core attraction of religion is gone.

But just the same, as a thought experiment, let’s imagine there is no God.  Nothing supernatural in the universe.  Let’s imagine that hatchescross.jpgJesus was not the Son of God, but merely a charismatic and radical teacher of a new form of love and compassion who so inspired his followers that they were willing to die for him. Let’s assume that the scriptures were not divinely inspired writings, but merely the product of the greatest authors over a millennium of human history.  Let’s say that all of the awe inspiring cathedrals, the soulful hymns and music, two thousand years of Christian paintings and sculpture, let’s say all of that was the product solely of the human heart and mind.  No help from the outside.  And finally, let’s imagine that all human acts of amazing sacrifice, generosity, bravery and compassion (even if the person was inspired by religious belief) were entirely and exclusively humans acts.

Where would this leave Christianity?  Would it be any less?  Would its teachings be false?  Would the strength and inspiration it provides be any less real?  Somewhat to my surprise, when I engage in this thought experiment, I find it uplifting.

Christianity becomes not some gift from God, but instead a wondrous example of human potential.  What thoughts we can have!  What beauty we can create!  God doesn’t get the credit – we do.  Rather than exalting Jesus, if you take God out of Christianity, you end up exalting all of humanity.

And the nice thing is, this understanding easily accommodates all of the bad aspects of religion too.  All the manipulation and abuse, all the false pretense and religious justification for horrible behavior.  Pretty much everyone agrees that those are human distortions of “true religion.”  Nobody blames God for that.  Humans take the blame (rightly so), so why don’t we get the credit when things go right?  No guessing about when it’s God will, or human distortion – it’s always us.  We get the credit, we get the blame.

Seems like a pretty conservative notion to me.  In the end, we, humanity, are the responsible party.

Yes, and we have a lot to be proud of. But doesn’t this accretion of cultural genius and human love point back, at the end, to something more perfect? As we ascend from the lowest forms of our nature, do we not chart a trajectory beyond it? Does this experience not help us understand the meaning of the word “divine” – to be human and yet not to fear death, to be human and yet to choose love over hate, to be human and yet be at peace with everything? “And all will be well. And all will be well. And all manner of thing will be well.”

Jesus, Christianity teaches, was very much human. But wasn’t his transcendence of so much of that humanness something that, in retrospect, his friends and disciples also believed to be divine? It’s the sacramental mixture of the two that captures the essence of Christianity, and its eternal mystery. There is something about humanity that intimates the divine.

Book Club: Can Christianity Survive Modernity? Ctd

Readers take stock of the conversation:

Your original question, “Can Christianity survive modernity?” has two dimensions to it, only one of which is addressed in Ehrman’s book. That’s the question of how modern scholarship sees the scriptural and historical record of Jesus and his age. But another, how-jesus-became-godoverlapping issue is also brought to bear by modernity. The Christian tradition about who Jesus was, and how his Divinity can be defined, is bounded by a very particular set of notions about God that in an earlier era were either forcibly isolated from the rest of the world’s religious cultures, or only passively separated by the limits of those times.

But in the modern age, when vast amounts of historical knowledge of not just Christianity, but the rest of the world is readily available, we now know what multiple branches of Hinduism thinks, what the various sects of Buddhism understand, what Bahai believes, what Taosim grasps about the nature of the cosmos, what shamanism discovers, even what secular mystical and hallucinogenic experience has to offer, and and so on. The modern mind isn’t just confronted with scholarly knowledge of Christianity’s real past; it’s also confronted by a whole range of experiential and conceptual knowledge about God, Divinity, and ultimate reality, including of course modern science itself. And the two can’t be separated anymore. That’s the dilemma of Christianity’s confrontation with modernism in a nutshell.


In arguing that Ehrman’s book does not “effectively debunk Christianity’s core claims in modernity,” I am struck by how elastic and indefinite the responses of you and your readers of faith are as to the notions of truth and Christian doctrine generally.   That is not meant as criticism, just an observation. One reader valued “the messiness and contradictions in the gospel accounts” as a virtue itself.  Another reader said the “literal truth or untruth [of the story of Christ] is of little to no interest,” and the practicing Catholic reader believes that the foundational doctrines of his church are “of course” not accurate because the truth of Jesus’s life and message can’t be known.  An earlier reader explicitly bookclub-beagle-tradvised you “to consider steering clear of words like ‘truth.'”

Is it then the better question to ask “whether postmodernism can save Christianity?”  And does the new historical research require a postmodern religious approach?  If so, what are the implications of that? It could strengthen and deepen Christianity’s core message and appeal.  But maybe not.  It seems certain to be consequential though.  Will this approach favor liberal Protestant faiths but pose a greater challenge to the more institutional Catholic Church?  If Christian doctrinal truths are admittedly unknowable and subjective to both Gospel writers and readers, does that mean that choosing between different Christian denominations is ultimately only a matter of personal comfort and/or inertia?  Or might this approach – as fundamentalists would argue – logically and inevitably weaken Christianity’s claim against competing faiths?


I’m an engineer and a recent convert to Catholicism (although I was always careful to say that I followed Dorothy Day, not Paul Ryan).  I know that my conversion process was not rational.  My overwhelming experience of something I can only call Grace has shattered every conviction I had about who I was, who/what God was, and my place in this universe.

I get impatient with those, on both sides, who try to use evidence to prove or disprove religious concepts. A scientist used modern tissue analysis as proof that a Eucharistic Miracle happened.  I felt that same impatience reading Ehrman’s book. None of these investigations have any relevance in comparison to my lived experience of Christ.

It’s not that I don’t think such investigations have value. I just see them as belonging to a realm of inquiry that is disconnected from my relationship with God.  If the Eucharistic Miracle turns out to be pig blood or the disciples had hallucinations of Jesus brought on by grief, it just doesn’t change anything about what happens when I pray.  It seems to me that a faith resting on such proofs is disconnected from the Source of faith.  For myself, I am better off learning how to tap into that Source more deeply and regularly.

I recently went on a pilgrimage to Assisi, the home of St. Francis and St. Claire.  They were declared saints soon after their deaths. Many artifacts of their lives were preserved within the lifetimes of those who knew them, and the town itself has been a place of pilgrimage ever since.  Pilgrims can be assured that the artifacts are real. When you walk the streets of Assisi, you are walking in the paths of the millions of pilgrims who came there to worship, contemplate and pray.  Even my agnostic husband felt the presence of so many souls seeking peace.

On the same trip, we saw a piece of wood that St. Helena claimed to be part of the table from the Last Supper, now preserved in the papal basilica of St. John Lateran.  She found it in the early 300s.  Who knows if it’s real?  For 1700 years, the faithful have venerated it as a connection back to the last peaceful moments Jesus had with his community of disciples, moments we recall every time we celebrate the Eucharist.

That veneration makes it holy.  The pilgrims make Assisi holy.  We make Christ holy. First the disciples and then the 2,000-year-old Christian community of the faithful experienced Jesus as someone extraordinary.  Jesus brought a powerful message that has come down through the ages and drawn millions of souls towards a stronger connection with the Source of faith, and more just, loving and care-taking relationships with each other.  How could the manifestation of such a person not be celebrated as miraculous?


You wrote, “I cannot rationally reconcile the divine and the human as single concept. But my faith, my personal experience of Jesus, forces me to accept it.”

And in so doing you are essentially recapitulating the experience of the disciples and the church. They tried every other explanation for what they had seen and heard, and none of them captured the length and breadth and depth and height of this man’s life.  So they were forced to come up with a formulation that made no sense, because it was the only thing that MADE sense.  Like the scientists who have to hold the absurd formulation that light is BOTH a particle and a ray, because only under those circumstances can they actually use their mathematics to make the equations correspond with the observed facts.

Credo quia absurdum. 

Book Club: Was There An Empty Tomb?


A reader challenges a part of Ehrman’s book we haven’t discussed yet:

Reading your thoughts and the reader responses so far, I’m surprised no one has mentioned Ehrman’s claim, in Chapter Four, that Jesus most likely wasn’t given a proper burial, meaning there was no tomb for his resurrection to leave empty – nor an actual body left to be resurrected, as theological orthodoxy would seem to demand. An excerpt from this chapter was recently featured on The Daily Beast, in which Ehrman makes this explicit: “Without an empty tomb, there would be no ground for saying that Jesus was physically raised.” And clearly, as Ehrman shows in his book, the “empty tomb” features prominently in Christian apologetics on this issue. The idea that Jesus really was buried allows Christians to ask, “Well, then what did happen to Jesus’ body?” If he wasn’t eaten by dogs, then we need to somehow account for his body, which people certainly would have been looking for after his followers started saying he was raised from the dead. Or so the argument goes.

bookclub-beagle-trAs it happens, the chapter on this issue by Craig Evans in the evangelical response to Ehrman’s book was the one I actually found perhaps most persuasive, and your readers should be aware of it. Evans cites a variety of ancient texts – including passages from Philo, Josephus, and Roman legal documents – that give us good reasons to think Roman authorities were tolerant of Jewish religious customs. It would take too long to go through all of Evans’ evidence, but their cumulative force is striking, and he makes clear that his argument especially concerns what the Romans allowed in Jerusalem, the center of Jewish religious life, where religious demands for performing certain rites, like the burial of the dead, would have been especially forceful (Jews in other places, such as Alexandria, seemed to fare worse).

Even Ehrman’s own book unwittingly offers evidence for this. Recall the account he gives of Pontius Pilate erecting images of the Roman emperor in Jerusalem, which violated Jewish beliefs about “graven images.” What happened after the Jewish uproar over this? They were removed.

Evans also makes clear that tolerance for Jewish burial customs extended, in various circumstances, to those who were crucified. Most interestingly, in my view, is the archaeological evidence he marshals on this point.

He walks the reader through examples we have of tombs and (more frequently) ossuaries containing the remnants of those crucified or nails of the kind used in crucifixions covered in calcium, meaning they were once in human bones. In short, not everyone who was crucified, and certainly not all Jews, were simply left for the wild dogs or carrion birds to eat. Evans cites Jodi Magness, a Jewish archaeologist at Ehrman’s own UNC-Chapel Hill, who summarizes the matter this way:

Gospel account of Jesus’ burial are largely consistent with the archaeological evidence. Although archaeology does not prove there was a follower of Jesus named Joseph of Arimathea or that Pontius Pilate granted his request for Jesus’ body, the Gospel accounts describing Jesus’ removal from the cross and burial are consistent with archaeological evidence and with Jewish law.

And speaking of Joseph of Arimathea, Evans argues that even that story has some real credence. Because the Sanhedrin, or Jewish Council, delivered Jesus to the Roman authorities, they would have been responsible for arranging a proper burial. So whether or not Joseph actually existed, the broad outline of the story he figures in is, according to Evans, reasonably consonant with the customs of the day.

Lastly, Ehrman makes a big deal of the fact that in the early creed Paul cites in his first letter to the how-jesus-became-godCorinthians, it merely says “And he was buried” rather than “And he was buried in a tomb.” When I read Ehrman’s book, I couldn’t understand quite why that mattered. Being buried implies a tomb, or a grave of some kind, but regardless being buried is not the same as being left to the dogs. Evans makes exactly the same point. And as for the supposed lack of symmetry in the creed – the line corresponding to the one just mentioned says “And he appeared to Cephas,” which leads Ehrman to think Joseph should be noted as the one who buried Jesus – Evans makes the reasonable point that naming who Jesus appeared to after his resurrection would be a far more important detail to include than the name of who buried Jesus, so the comparison doesn’t quite hold. Of course, maybe Joseph wasn’t named because that particular tradition arose later, but even if it did, the lack of knowing exactly who buried Jesus does nothing to alter the other contextual evidence that leads Evans to argue that it wouldn’t have been unusual for Jesus, a Jew in Jerusalem, to be given a proper burial.

Overall, then, this is one point where my layman reading of both sides of the argument makes me lean toward Ehrman’s evangelical critics.

Agreed. Another critical point worth reiterating in this context: perhaps the most striking thing in the book is that Ehrman explicitly states he has changed his mind as to when the belief in Jesus’ divinity arose. He used to think it came about decades later, but is now convinced by the evidence that the resurrection was a very early Christian belief. So the empty tomb is a real possibility and the resurrection was claimed by the earliest Christians. Sometimes religious beliefs are weakened by historical evidence; but sometimes they are actually strengthened.

(Read the whole Book Club thread on How Jesus Became God here. Email any responses to rather than the main account, and please try to keep them under 500 words. Painting: The Resurrection Of Jesus by Piero Della Francesca.)

Book Club: Apocalypse Then

A reader writes:

Beyond all the crap about resurrection, Jesus was an apocalyptic preacher who predicted the end of the world would come very soon, probably in his own lifetime. And that realization colors how I view Jesus’ most important message.

I am not a Christian. But my religious identity has nothing to do with belief (what do I know?) and everything to do with the way I live my life. The only parts of the New Testament that I admire are Jesus’ parables and his teachings. Leave your family. Give up material things and live in poverty. Don’t worry about tomorrow. Don’t show off or try to be better than others. This is radical stuff – a lifestyle I respect, but am too cowardly and weak to pursue. Therefore, I do not call myself a Christian, because I cannot live up to Jesus’ commands. And as far as I’m concerned, anyone who doesn’t live like Jesus (i.e. a vagabond) has no right to call himself a Christian.

So a big thought hit me hard: Jesus’ unique and radical teachings only make sense because he was an apocalyptic preacher. Leave your family and pay no attention to tomorrow because the world is about to end. In the context of the end of the world, it all makes sense. Of course you should abandon material things; they’re all about to be wiped away.

So now I’m left with this conundrum: Jesus’ teachings only work against a background of imminent destruction. AND, obviously, the world did not end. Does that then invalidate his teaching? Without the apocalypse at the foundation of Jesus’ ministry, aren’t we badly misinterpreting what he really meant?

We’re certainly avoiding a rather obvious point: one of Jesus’ most emphatic predictions in his lifetime was wrong. Dead wrong. Now you can try and elide this by insisting that he didn’t put a date on the end of the world, but that ignores the urgency of his warnings. Does that invalidate Jesus’ teaching, as my reader suggests? Well, the first thing to say is that Christianity spread rapidly even as its main prediction turned out to be wrong. And, as Ehrman notes, it seems that the reality of the belief in the resurrection is what galvanized and sustained this religious movement after its guru’s untimely and dishonorable death. The resurrection occluded the failed prophesy.

how-jesus-became-godDoes that in turn render the radicalism of Jesus’ calls for total poverty, homelessness and suffering less powerful? I’d say it makes them more powerful. They become less a last-minute preparation for the end-times than a deeper and more radical critique of worldliness in all its forms. They become less a means to an end, and more an end in themselves. And Jesus taught these things, in the Gospels, without constantly referring to them as mere end-times necessities. Power over others is to be foresaken as an eternal truth about human life; wealth is an obstacle to happiness; what matters at all times is being present to others and to God, not running around with this goal or that; forgiving makes you happier than bearing grudges; revenge only perpetuates the cycle of hatred, rather than breaking it. All of these counter-intuitive ideas are our true destiny as humans if we can only master them. They are the only sure means to internal and external peace.

Now, of course, other religious traditions speak of similar things. You can see in Buddhism, for example, the insight that possessions hurt rather than help. You can see in Taoism the wisdom of letting go, of seeking peace by striving for less. And all of these impulses – which contradict what we now understand as our evolutionary nature – transcend “the restless desire of power after power, that ceaseth only in death.” This profound insight – the early Christians believed – didn’t come from within us, but somehow from above us. And a person who walks this Bronzino-Christ-Nicewalk is indeed living as close to divinity as human beings can get.

This insight is perhaps encapsulated by the word logos, a form of divine wisdom about how to be happy and at peace through the law of love; and it is easy to see why Jesus’ life and example came to seem to his subsequent followers an incarnation of this logos, which of course is eternal. And Jesus’ decision to embrace his own torture and death with stunning equanimity and compassion represented the pinnacle of that divine achievement. How many of us could forgive those driving nails into our body? How many would stand by and say nothing when we are accused of something we never did? The Passion narrative is crafted to show how deeply Jesus walked the walk. It is by giving that we receive. It is by forgiving that we can be forgiven. Even in extremis. We will all die some day – which is our own looming apocalypse. And the only true way of grappling with that is through Christ’s logos.

Another reader:

I want to ask, (1) can a believer truly be open to evidence that Jesus, perhaps at one part of his life, said and believed things very different from what we normally attribute to him, and (2) can one – can a Christian – be open to the idea that, in these early beliefs at least, Jesus was wrong?

Take the body of assertions from Chapter 3 [in Ehrman’s book] about Jesus as an itinerant apocalyptic preacher.

I have heard such descriptions of John the Baptist and Jesus previously, but this is perhaps the first time when the sheer weight of these statements hit home. Ehrman’s evidence – supported by his criteria of independent attestation and dissimilarity – helped me to appreciate just how often the texts focus, as a whole, on judgment, on punishment, on reversals of ultimate fortune, and especially on a rhetoric of fear (and joy) in the face of an imminent end.  This vision of Jesus’ early and perhaps entire ministry seems as well founded as anything in the book.

But if you accept that we can indeed have a sense of what Jesus said and what Jesus meant by his apocalyptical proclamations – if we can get a sense of what these word meant in their historical and textual context – then how can this not have an effect on what one thinks of Jesus?

Sheep and goats; burning and wailing; shame and sinfulness; and the righteousness of new and better judgment: these are words that embody, for me, not an abiding love of humanity, but a mainly a hatred of sin. They do not promise to redeem creation, but rather revel in visions of un-creation, of joyous destruction.  These pronouncements do not so much love justice as much they enjoy imagining the punishment of injustice.  In loving God, this Jesus hates the world.

As a historical fact and a textual interpretation, this reading may be correct or incorrect.  But what if, on the whole, it seems right? What can one, as a Christian, do with these words and feelings?

We can balance them, I’d say, by other words and feelings, and see what was truly radical and new in Jesus’ teaching about how to live and die independently of the apocalyptic vision. But we cannot ignore that side completely. Jesus, Christian believe, was both fully human and fully divine. The human part was bound up in the culture and history of his time, its apocalyptic background, and its roots in Jewish scripture. The divine part escaped that. To believe in the Incarnation requires one to accept both, and to live with a Jesus we will never fully master and never totally understand.

(Read the whole Book Club thread on How Jesus Became God here. Please email any responses to rather than the main account, and try to keep them under 500 words.)

Update from a reader:

It seems to me a big reason Christianity spread after Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, and the coming of the Holy Spirit, is that his followers began to reexamine his apocalyptic predictions in light of their post-Pentecost experiences. They understood “the age to come” to have actually begun – an age defined by the upside-down Kingdom Jesus had announced in his teachings, in which the last were now first, the greatest were those who served, and Jesus – not the Caesar whose government had put him to death – was Lord. The apocalyptic signs were all around them: “I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams” (Acts 2).

They had no reason to disbelieve Jesus on account of his prophecies not coming true; they were now living in the new age he had predicted would come.


Enjoying this thread. There are other interpretations of Jesus’ prophetic “mistake” about the literal end of the whole world, which does seem like a pretty big paradox for literalists. Instead, lots of the end times prophecies/symbolism make sense when interpreted as applying to the ~70CE Jewish rebellion against Roman hegemony and consequent destruction of the Temple and massive slaughter of the population of Jerusalem, followed by Nero’s persecution of the early Christians. This lines up nicely with the modern dating of the texts in the New Testament (soon after the historical events), and means we can end the idiotic game of deciding which contemporary political figures are candidates for the role of anti-Christ (though that game is too popular to end anytime soon).


Wow – great insights from the readers! “In loving God Jesus hates the world.” Strong stuff, and not to be dismissed lightly, since it has remained one pole of the dialectic that has driven Christianity from the outset. The “little apocalypse” of Jerusalem’s fall to Titus solves part of the problem, but it does not really reach the deeper issue, if Christ is speaking to mankind and not just the Jews. The response that the Pentecost renders immediate the new age is intriguing, but it cannot resolve the other great failed prophecy stated in the kerugma – the declaration of the Christian’s faith reduced to its essence: Christ has died; Christ has risen; Christ will come again.

Paul, the architect of the Church, understood Christ’s return to be imminent, like the prophecy of the apocalypse. Like the reader who suggests, correctly in my view, that Christ’s preaching of radical divestiture is made within the context of apocalypse, Paul preaches that his congregations must live their lives not in anticipation of Christ’s return, but live them in preparation for his return – tomorrow. As Christians, we can rationalize, but that path leads nowhere, I think. Best perhaps to focus on the here and now.

Book Club: Relating To Resurrection

A reader writes:

Something in How Jesus Became God that resonated personally was the discussion in Chapter Five regarding After-Death Communications as an explanation for the visions of the resurrected Christ that some disciples received.  Our son was born with a severe heart defect and had to undergo open-heart surgery at age two.  We were told there was a 90% chance of his survival.  Two days after the surgery, he suffered heart failure in the ICU.  We went through several weeks of alternating between hope and despair as to what could be done for him, bookclub-beagle-trincluding receiving a heart transplant, but eventually we had to decide to remove all life support. He died in our arms, slowly, hour by hour, as we watched his vital signs decline to nothingness.

Neither my wife nor I had ever experienced anything so emotionally tortuous.  We both fell into depressions, and in my case I began to experience dreams that I was being visited by my son.  What was exceedingly real about these dreams was the physical sense of holding him in my arms, his cheek next to mine, listening to him babble.  A tremendous sense of contentment flooded over me, knowing that he was alive.  I would wake up at peace, and it would take five or more minutes for me to understand I was back in a different world of pain and sorrow.  These dreams persisted for a few months and then stopped entirely.

I’m not a believer in an afterlife, but I am a believer that experiences such as these could convince anyone that someone close to them who had died tragically and unexpectedly, was alive in a real sense – not here on earth, but in heaven (if they believed heaven exists).  This could have happened to any number of Christ’s followers, and it was a very short step for them to then exalt Jesus as being at the right hand of the Father, since his disciples had spent three extremely intense years speculating that this unique and remarkable man could very well be the promised Son of Man, or even the Son of God.

My own effort to explain how I view the Resurrection of Jesus is in my last post in the Book Club here. But I also have personal experiences that are similar to my readers, and I wrote about them at length in my book about Pietro_lorenzetti,_compianto_(dettaglio)_basilica_inferiore_di_assisi_(1310-1329)surviving the plague of AIDS, Love Undetectable. I was diagnosed with HIV six weeks after one of my closest friends at the time had been diagnosed with AIDS. He had kept it a secret, until one afternoon he asked to meet me at the fountain in Dupont Circle, where he told me his diagnosis as I told him mine. The coincidence had us both smiling. We were already both Catholics and both writers and both gay in a terrifying era very different from today. But from that moment on, we bonded even more deeply, and over the next two years, I and his other close friends took care of him as he slowly slipped away from us. I saw him turn into a walking skeleton; I saw him pound the floor in pain; I saw him wracked by intense and unremitting fevers; I saw his breath literally taken away from him; I saw as cancer lesions speckled his body and advanced relentlessly toward his lungs; I saw the unspeakable shock and pain of his family; I listened to his voice, racked with fear and pain, over the phone at night; and I was entrusted with the details of his funeral. Watching my dear friend die at 31 of an agonizing disease will never leave me. And I will always, somewhere deep down, feel in some ways guilty for having lived, while he died.

But after his death, I felt his presence strongly at times. He appeared to me in symbols – like the sea-gulls that flew over the bay where we had released his ashes, or one gull that kept recurring in my life on the Cape and elsewhere as an almost sacred sign of his presence. He appeared to me in my dreams – and in one unforgettable one, I didn’t at first recognize him.

He was Patrick and yet no longer Patrick. His tormented shell of a body, racked by slow starvation and countless lesions, was now resplendent. His face was clear, his body more luminous than in life, all flaws removed. And he was happy. Weeks would then pass and I would suddenly be arrested by a sense of his presence – on the sidewalk, reading a book, sleeping on the beach. I cannot fully explain this, although a modern mind can always analyze it from the perspective of grief, survivor guilt, wish-fulfillment, and the like. And over time, Patrick’s presence diminished. But I experienced it as very, very real for as long as it lasted.

So, yes, I can indeed see the disciples having similar experiences – and they have been attested to in countless other lives as well, in studies and surveys over the years, as Ehrman notes. I infer from mine that Patrick is alive and well, and that one day, we will be together again. Perhaps at that fountain in Dupont Circle. And we will be laughing. And happy. And free from death and the fear of death. That is my faith. And I believe it was the faith of the disciples as well. It is what I mean by resurrection.

(Read the whole Book Club thread on How Jesus Became God here. Please email any responses to rather than the main account, and try to keep them under 500 words. Painting: Pietro Lorenzetti from the basilica in Assisi.)

Book Club: The Indispensable Jesus?

I’m sorry for not jumping into the debate more this weekend, but the pollen bukkake in DC right now has reduced my lung capacity a bit, and thinking about the resurrection is even more difficult while hooked up to a nebulizer with albuterol than is usually the case. Mercifully, many of my responses to this batch of criticism were pre-empted, rather eloquently, by this batch of counter-criticism.

A few thoughts on this question: given the many contemporaneous accounts of other religious figures rising from the dead (indeed several in Caravaggio.emmaus.750pixthe Bible itself), and given that all Christians are supposed to rise bodily from the dead as well, why is Jesus so special? Why is he “consubstantial with the Father” in ways other resurrected beings are not?

The obvious answer to this is that the early Christians obviously believed that he was uniquely divine in some form. Ehrman makes a good case that Jesus was viewed as special by his disciples in his lifetime because they deemed him to be the Jewish Messiah who would reign supreme at the end of the world. The specialness of his being the Jewish Messiah was then combined with the staggering revelation that he had risen from the dead. It was that combination – a resurrected Messiah – that upped the ante, setting the seeds for the gradual evolution of the doctrine of the Incarnation and the Trinity. The story of Apollonius, otherwise very close to the story of Jesus, lacked the Messiah prophesy. And it also lacked the retroactive examination of the Hebrew Bible for various prophesies to be fulfilled in Jesus.

Moreover, as Ehrman notes, although there were countless semi-divine characters and resurrected prophets in the early Christian era, even though the human-divine admixture included angels and strange gods and the off-spring of unnatural sex between gods and humans, only lazarustwo people were ever designated the “Son Of God.” One was the Roman Emperor, Caesar Augustus, and the other was Jesus, a rural apocalyptic preacher from Galilee. That is some elevated company to keep and it begs the question: why Jesus and no one else? What was so special about him?

What’s frustratingly lacking in Ehrman’s book – and it’s not its subject so it’s not Ehrman’s fault – are the teachings of Jesus and the way he lived. I don’t think you can understanding the full impact of the resurrection outside the disciples’ experience of the living Jesus, with his teachings and his healings and his miracles. For me, these remarkable stories are the missing tissue here. It is one thing for a prophet to be put to a gruesome death; it is another thing when that prophet lived and taught in such a way that he seemed to revolutionize human consciousness and then was put to death.

Jesus inverted so much of the world’s familiar lessons: don’t protect yourself in a dangerous world, make yourself vulnerable; don’t seek revenge on those who have wronged you, give them another chance to wrong you; don’t just love your friends, but love your enemies; don’t live abstemiously, give everything you have away to the poor; don’t worry about tomorrow, today will be taken care of; by all means obey the rules but never if they violate the deeper rule of love. Above all: love one another. These stories and sayings and teachings carry huge impact jesus_2.jpgtoday, even though we have lived with them for centuries. But I try to imagine myself as one of the disciples, busily fishing in the Sea of Galilee, and not only being astounded by these ideas, but dropping my life and abandoning my family altogether and following him because of the power of his ideas and example.

Then, in a sudden development, this radically non-violent individual is seized under false pretenses and brutally tortured to death. And again, even here, it is not so much his death that resonates as the manner of his death. He refused to defend himself; he embraced the ridicule; he forgave the men driving nails into his wrists; he reached out in love to one of the poor souls hanging next to him; and he despaired. This happens after most of his loved ones either denied ever knowing him or fled. Only the women who loved him and the disciple Jesus loved stayed behind.

Now put yourself in the place of those bewildered, terrified, disloyal former followers.

In this miasma of fear, guilt, grief and disorientation, they suddenly see Jesus alive and walking around in various visions and mysterious manifestations. There you have the whiplash of the resurrection, and the obvious desire of the disciples to believe that all of it must mean something more profound than merely that Jesus was  a man of God who was unjustly put to death. He was more than that to them – and the resurrection made that indelible. And I find it perfectly reasonable to see why the disciples began to tell and re-tell the stories of Jesus life as a way to keep him alive in their hearts and minds and to buttress and deepen the meaning of this revelation. I find it perfectly human to re-enact his last supper with them as a way to keep his memory and his presence in their lives.

hatchescross.jpgIn other words, Occam’s razor needs to take into account the life-changing ideas and the soul-changing way of life Jesus of Nazareth gave the world. When I say a deeper perfection lies behind the fallible game of telephone that the Gospels are, I mean simply this. The words that Jefferson excavated, the stories that Tolstoy marveled at, the way of life that Francis of Assisi embraced, all of this and so much more come from this man’s words and life. There is always something astounding when the victims of violence refuse to fight back and seek to love instead. It defuses all of our evolutionary impulses. It negates what was previously thought of as human. It instantly makes one think of something divine.

There are many ways of understanding this, and Christians, as Ehrman shows, came up with countless permutations on the notion of God-Made-Flesh within the Trinity. None of it makes any worldly sense, the Trinity especially. It makes sense only as paradox and mystery, not as literal truth. And so I do not have a firm belief in the bodily resurrection of Jesus, because the Gospels don’t either. He is a vision, an angel, a man who walks through doors only to reveal himself in the flesh … and then he withdraws again from view. There is no single, literal account in the Jesus stories of his resurrection, which is one reason I prefer to leave its precise contours a little opaque. Ehrman suggests the conviction that Jesus had risen from the dead might be an instance of a very common form of vision of recently dead loved ones – which was not unique to the disciples but witnessed countless times across the globe then and now. And I sure keep that option open.

But because it is a mystery, I do not discount the possibility of a literal resurrection either. What matters to me is the life-changing message of Jesus, potent and rendered in unforgettable metaphor and parable, lived by him to the astonishment of all who encountered him, and speaking of a form of justice, of life and of love that we rightly associate with some power beyond us – because so much in our evolutionary make-up screams against it and yet somewhere within us we recognize it is the only transcendence we are capable of. In that sense, Jesus was the intersection of timeless truth with time. And nothing could be more miraculous in the long and brutal history of humankind than that.

(The entire discussion for How Jesus Became God is compiled here. Please email any responses to rather than the main account, and please keep them under 500 words.

Photos: the road to Emmaus by Caravaggio; the Epstein statue of Lazarus in New College, Oxford; my own personal Jesus; and a cross at Hatches Harbor at the end of Cape Cod.)

Book Club: Can Christianity Survive Modernity? Ctd

All of these readers seem to answer “yes” to the above question:

I was raised a Christian in a tiny, Midwestern town where everyone went to either the Catholic church or the Protestant church. I was surrounded by unquestioning believers until I left for college. I had lost how-jesus-became-godmy faith in my early teens and it stayed lost for the next 40 years or so. But I now consider myself a Christian, with all the attendant doubts and questions. I credit books like Ehrman’s and groups like the Jesus Seminar for my change of heart.

Why? Because their research and scholarship affirmed the actual existence of Jesus and his horrific death. Up until then, Jesus was just a mythical being, like Zeus or Thor. I felt I finally had something solid to stand on, and so I started my faith journey.

I didn’t mind the messiness and contradictions in the gospel accounts at all. It makes it feel more authentic and vivid to me, like I was witnessing all those men and women trying to make sense of something new and strange. I would have been extremely skeptical if the New Testament had been a smooth and seamless account, because I can’t imagine actual humans responding to such wild events in a smooth and seamless way. I mean, it must have been so weird, y’know?

Another is on the same wavelength:

The problem comes when a screwdriver is used to drive a nail into the wall. Logic as we know it is not at the core of religion. This is not a diss; religion is akin to non-Euclidean geometry, or to quantum physics. It goes by a different creed, ethos, set of “rules” – whatever.

bookclub-beagle-trEhrman’s textual analysis is great, and I’ve loved his books. To see his scholarship as weakening Christianity, however, is to sell religion short. The story of Christ is a portal, a doorway to enter religious life. Its literal truth or untruth is of little to no interest. People who insist on the inerrant truth of this or that need to watch Rashomon a few times, take mushrooms, and chill out. The Gospels are full of Jesus telling parables; get the hint?


I am a practicing Catholic who attends Mass almost every Sunday, prays every day and even prays the Liturgy of the Hours as often as my hectic schedule allows. I love the Catholic Church despite having some great misgivings about some of its priorities and teachings, especially in the areas of sexuality. I concluded long ago from reading Ehrman, Geza Vermes and others, that the New Testament is almost an historical novel, with many (but by no means all) of the words of Christ having been made up by the authors of the Gospels. Since I believe that the fall of man in Genesis cannot be true, I cannot believe that Christ died and was resurrected as a sacrifice to expiate original sin.

So why am I a Catholic?

You wrote: “But since the scholarship is pretty much indisputable, it seems to me that it is not Christianity that should be abandoned in the wake of these historical revelations, but a false understanding of what the Gospels and Letters actually are.” This sums up why I still consider myself a Catholic. As Ehrman lays out in his book, the beliefs of the early Church evolved as the theologians and philosophers tried to figure out who and what Jesus was. They couldn’t know, because even people who knew, loved and followed Christ apparently didn’t fully understand him. All the Church fathers had were the writings of others and oral traditions. What they achieved was a tour de force of logic and intellect as they refined their understanding of Christ.

Is this refined understanding accurate? Of course not, and neither is Ehrman’s, but it is the best we can do as mere humans. A Church that at least proclaims the hope and love exemplified by Jesus is my home.

Interestingly, Ehrman has written elsewhere that he is agnostic not because of where his scholarship has led him, but because of the issue of theodicy.

In Ehrman’s words:

About nine or ten years ago I came to realize that I simply no longer believed the Christian message. A ehrman_bart_12_020large part of my movement away from the faith was driven by my concern for suffering. … We live in a world in which a child dies every five seconds of starvation. Every five seconds. Every minute there are twenty-five people who die because they do not have clean water to drink. Every hour 700 people die of malaria. Where is God in all this? We live in a world in which earthquakes in the Himalayas kill 50,000 people and leave 3 million without shelter in the face of oncoming winter. We live in a world where a hurricane destroys New Orleans. Where a tsunami kills 300,000 people in one fell swoop. Where millions of children are born with horrible birth defects. And where is God? To say that he eventually will make right all that is wrong seems to me, now, to be pure wishful thinking.

Another reader:

“Does this book effectively debunk Christianity’s core claims in modernity … or does it point to a new way of understanding and believing them?” I have wrestled with this same question after reading Reza Aslan’s book, Zealot. What his book and Ehrman’s book point towards is that Christianity as we know is a Romanized version that is far removed from the actual lives and times of Jesus of Nazareth. But for me, both books gave me a stronger faith in Jesus. This may be because I have always been quite liberal in my interpretation of Christianity. For me, follow the Golden Rule, help the least fortunate amongst us, and trust in the teaching of Jesus have always been the central tenants of my faith.

I am often told that to be Christian you have to believe in the Resurrection. You have to believe that Jesus died on the Cross for our sins and was resurrected to sit by God. Both of these books ultimately arrive at this point as well. Is one a Christian if they do not believe in the Resurrection? If there is no Resurrection, is there Christianity?

This is a question I have grappled with and continue to grapple with at this time. However, I think the answer to both questions is that the Resurrection does not have to be literal, as is true of other parts of the Bible. Why would it diminish the faith if Christianity/the Resurrection were interpreted to be that Jesus taught us how to live a better life, temper our sins, have a relationship with God, and died for these teachings and went to Heaven as the Son of God, as all of us will as the son and daughters of God? This would only diminish the faith in so far as it would not appeal to 3rd and 4th century Roman authorities and fulfill a literal interpretation of the Messiah prophecies.

I don’t know about you, but the former provides me a stronger faith for living in the 21st century and is more accurately backed up by historical research. This is why I say both of these books should give us comfort as Christians living in the 21st century, as we can embrace a historical Jesus that is divorced from the politics of the creation of the religion that is named after him. As Aslan writes, this is a Jesus worth believing in and following towards a relationship with God.


Let me start by saying that I am at least a non-theist and very probably what almost anyone would describe as an atheist.  I also have a Jewish background and very strongly identify with the Jewish community.

So does Ehrman “debunk Christianity’s core claims…”?  Absolutely not.  What he does do is make it clear that these Gospels were written by human beings who had very human motivations, and not all of those motivations were directly related to pure belief in Jesus.  They had political motivations, personal feelings, and all the limitations of humans – not to mention very little or no understanding of the physical world that our science has begun to give us in the past 300 or so years.

It is of course possible that the core claims of Christianity are not true, but just because the gospels were written by flawed human beings doesn’t make them so.  It is certainly possible that the understanding of Jesus evolved along exactly the lines that Ehrman describes and slowly and gradually approached the current “truth” – or maybe even that the understanding of that truth can evolve further.  It is possible that the followers of Jesus simply did not or could not grasp the full truth immediately and that it took them centuries to get there.

On the other hand, it is very difficult to distinguish this process from another process – the development of a false religion over hundreds of years as its doctrine grew.  How can we tell the difference between a true religion in which theology developed and a false religion that added layer after layer of false theology?  I don’t think we can from examining the historical record of how the theology grew.

So Ehrman neither debunks nor proves Christianity, but I think he does make believers face the fact that the Gospels were written by humans (with all that implies) and theology is rarely completely static and fixed.  There I think he does a great service to Christians, if they will allow it.

Another atheist reader:

Your question of whether Christianity can survive modernism grabbed me.  It is a serious question whether any Church can survive, without another schism, the conflict between fundamentalists and “modernists” we see being played out in the world.  Pope Francis may have found the answer – de-emphasize the doctrinal elements of the faith and emphasize the compassion in the rituals and good works inspired by the faith.  A wonderful balancing act, in which I wish him all the best.

(Please email any responses to rather than the main account. Read the whole Book Club thread on How Jesus Became God here.)