Thursday, April 9, 2009

An Evaluation of Bart Ehrman’s Historical Jesus
A version of this article was originally published in
Bibliotheca Sacra (April-June, 2001)
Dennis Ingolfsland

Bart Ehrman, professor of religious studies, Hellenistic religion, and New Testament at the University of North Carolina, has recently published Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium.[1] In this book he presents his methods and conclusions regarding the historical Jesus using three primary criteria for ascertaining which of Jesus’ sayings and actions recorded in the New Testament are authentic: independent attestation, dissimilarity, and contextual credibility.[2]

Independent attestation occurs when two or more independent sources attest to the same event or saying. For example, if source A copied, summarized or even alluded to source B in a specific event, the two sources would not be considered independent attestation for that event.

The criterion of dissimilarity, according to Ehrman, states that if a saying of Jesus recorded in a particular gospel is dissimilar to what other Christians were saying about Jesus when that gospel was written, the saying is more likely to be genuine. Similarly, if a saying does not support a Christian agenda, or if it appears to work against a Christian agenda, it is more likely to be genuine.

The criterion of contextual credibility asserts that traditions are more likely to be reliable if they conform well to what is known of the historical and social situation of the time.[3]
According to Ehrman, when these criteria are applied to the study of Jesus the following picture emerges: Jesus was a Jewish apocalyptic prophet whose message centered on a future kingdom of God that would be free of poverty and oppression. Jesus taught his followers to seek this kingdom above all else and to behave now as they would in the kingdom. This meant not only loving God above all else but also loving one’s neighbor and even one’s enemies. Jesus spoke of a coming judgment upon the religious leaders of his day and this is what led to his execution.

While many aspects of Ehrman’s presentation of Jesus make good sense of the biblical data—for example, the importance of loving God and others, Jesus’ preaching of a future kingdom having no poverty or oppression, and the preaching of a future judgment – he has not adequately dealt with the issue of Jesus’ self-understanding.

On the other hand, Ben Witherigton, professor of New Testament at Asbury Seminary and a research fellow at Cambridge University, has done and excellent job of discussing Jesus’ self-understanding using the same kinds of standard historical-critical criteria that Ehrman uses. By combining the insights of Witherington’s book “The Christology of Jesus” with the insights of Ehrman’s “Jesus, Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Mellennium” the picture that emerges is remarkably similar to that presented in the Gospels.

Ehrman’s View of Jesus

The Apocalyptic Jesus
Ehrman views Jesus as a strongly apocalyptic figure, i.e. one who believed that God would one day conclude human history in a dramatic visible way. Ehrman’s view is somewhat of an update of the apocalyptic view of Jesus espoused by Albert Schweitzer, which Ehrman says is “a view of Jesus that has been maintained for most of the present century by the majority of critical scholars in both the United States and Germany.[4] Since our earliest sources—the documents of the New Testament— and the majority of critical scholars have presented Jesus in an apocalyptic light,[5] Ehrman asks why some recent scholars[6] have interpreted Jesus in a non-apocalyptic way. Those who view Jesus as non-apocalyptic generally see him as someone who was concerned with life here and now with little or no concern or belief in the end of human history.

First, Ehrman points out that those who advocate a nonapocalyptic Jesus believe that the earliest nonextant sources, like Q,[7] portray Jesus in nonapocalyptic terms. Ehrman, however, points out that Q actually supports an apocalyptic view of Jesus. To avoid this problem, nonapocalyptic interpreters postulate multiple redactions of Q and arbitrarily relegate all the apocalyptic Q material to later editions.[8] Ehrman argues that this tactic goes beyond what is actually known.[9] While the existence of Q is widely accepted even among Evangelical scholars, we must never forget that Q is only a hypothesis—one that has been increasingly called into question.[10] I think Ehrman’s point is that it is a very weak argument to postulate multiple editions of a hypothetical document, conveniently relegating evidence for an apocalyptic Jesus to later editions—and then to use this as evidence to support a non-apocalyptic view of Jesus.

Some of those who advocate a nonapocalyptic Jesus date apocryphal documents such as the Egerton manuscript, the Gospel of the Hebrews, and parts of the Gospel of Peter even before the canonical Gospels.[11] This, according to Ehrman, is overly speculative, since there are no good reasons to date these documents in the first century.[12]

Since the nonapocalyptic view of Jesus does not stand up to close scrutiny, Ehrman asks whether the apocalyptic view holds up when examined by specific historical criteria. His answer is yes, for some of the following reasons. First, the fact that Jesus held an apocalyptic worldview is strongly and multiply attested in the earliest sources, including Mark (1:13–24, 27, 30), Q ( = Luke 17:24; 26–27 / Matthew 24:27, 37–39; and Luke 12:39 = Matthew 24:44), M ( =Matthew 13:40–43), L ( =in Luke 21:34–36), and later in the Gospel of John.[13]

Second, Ehrman the apocalyptic view of Jesus is supported by the criterion of contextual credibility. The fact that there were numerous apocalyptic Jews in first-century Palestine is seen in the Dead Sea Scrolls, 2 Baruch, and Josephus.[14]

Third, both John the Baptist before Jesus and the early church after Jesus were unquestionably apocalyptic in their views.[15] The question is which makes more sense historically, 1) that Jesus shared John’s apocalyptic views and passed them on to his (Jesus’) disciples or 2) that Jesus rejected John’s apocalyptic views and for some reason Jesus’ disciples rejected Jesus’ views and reverted back to the apocalyptic views of John. In light of the fact that an apocalyptic Jesus meets the criteria of multiple independent attestation and contextual credibility, and in absence of convincing evidence to the contrary, it is preferable to postulate continuity between John, Jesus, and the early church as far as apocalyptic expectation is concerned.

The Message of Jesus

According to Ehrman, Jesus’ message centered on the priority of the kingdom of God.[16] The parables show that Jesus believed the kingdom had both present and future aspects,[17] but when Jesus spoke of the kingdom of God, He was often referring primarily to a literal kingdom in which God will rule (e.g., Matt. 19:28; cf. Luke 22:30; including Q material in Luke 13:23–29 = Matthew 8:11–12).[18] Though the kingdom is “small and inauspicious” in the present, it will one day exist in power and glory (Mark 4:26–29, 30–32; Q material in Matt. 13:33 = Luke 13:20).[19]

Jesus said this future kingdom would be marked by several “role reversals.” For example the people of God who were suffering and oppressed would replace the forces of evil who were then in power (Matt. 20:16; Mark 10:29–31; Luke 13:29–30). Those who were in poverty would be wealthy in the kingdom. These role reversals would occur after the imminent (Mark 8:38–9:1; 13:33–37; Q material in Matt. 24:43–44 = Luke 12:39–40; 12:45–46 / Matt 24:48–50 ; M material in Matthew 25:13; L material in Luke 12:36) coming of universal judgment (Mark 13:24–25) by the Son of Man (Mark 8:38; 13:24–27; Luke 17:24; 26–27, 30 cf. Matt 24:27, 27–29; Luke 12:8–9; cf. Matt. 10:32–33; Luke 21:34–36; Matt 13:24–30; 36-43; Matt 13:47–50)—someone other than Jesus, according to Ehrman—in which even the temple itself would be destroyed (Mark 13:2; 14:58; 15:29; John 25:19).[20]

For Jesus, absolutely nothing was more important than loving God and seeking His kingdom. Jesus likened the kingdom to a treasure that was worth more than one’s very life (Matt. 13:44–46).[21] So this present life should be a matter of indifference at best,[22] which is why Jesus taught that His followers should not be concerned about food or clothing.[23] In fact, even one’s closest loved ones were to be considered secondary to the kingdom (Q material in Luke 14:26 = Mt 10:37).[24]

For Jesus, putting the kingdom first involved obedience to the principle found in the Law of Moses that one should love God above all else and love one’s neighbor as one’s self. Jesus’ devotion to the Law is well attested (Mark 10:17–22; Q material in Luke 16:16 = Mt 5:18; M material in Matt. 5:17, 19–20; John 10:34–35), but unlike some of the Pharisees, Jesus did not emphasize legal minutiae. Unlike the Sadducees, Jesus did not place supreme importance on the temple, and unlike the Essenes, Jesus did not teach the maintenance of purity by isolation from others.[25] One thing that distinguished Jesus from various Jewish sects was His insistence that the command to love one’s neighbor took precedence over other laws and practices.

For example, while Jesus may have agreed with Pharisees about such legal matters as tithing and abstaining from work on the Sabbath, legal technicalities were never to take precedence over the Law’s command to love one’s neighbor by helping the poor or easing human suffering (Mark 2:27; Q material in Luke 11:42 = Matt. 23:23). And while Jesus joined the Pharisees and Sadducees in worshipping at the temple, not even the temple itself was as important to Jesus as love for one’s neighbor (M material in Matthew 9:13; 12:7).[26]

Jesus was particularly insistent that loving one’s neighbor included the needs of the poor, the sick (Matt. 25:31–46), and socially outcast like women (Mark 7:27–28; 14:6–9; Luke 10:38–42; John 4:7–26; 11:20–27) and children (Matt. 18:9; Mark 9:37, 42; 10:14; Luke 9:48).[27] Jesus’ command to love others extended even to enemies. In fact Jesus’ command to forgive one’s enemies is one of His most strongly attested teachings (Mark 11:25; Q material in Luke 11:4 = Matt 6:12; Luke 17:3 = Matt 18:15; L material in Luke 17:4; 7:40–43; M material in Matt 18:22–35).[28]

Jesus expected His followers to prepare for the kingdom at once—which meant that they were to behave in the present as they would in the kingdom. Since there would be no war in the kingdom, Jesus’ followers were to abstain from all violence now. Since the kingdom would have no poverty, Jesus’ followers were to help the poor now. Since there would be no oppression or injustice in the kingdom, Jesus’ followers were to treat all people with fairness and justice now. Since there would be no hatred in the kingdom, Jesus’ followers were to serve others lovingly now.[29]

Ehrman emphasizes that Jesus’ teachings were not designed to bring about long-term social change in society—because in Jesus’ view there would be no time for such change to be brought about. The Son of Man would come soon and set up the kingdom, and preparing people for this event was “at the heart of Jesus’ ethics.”[30] Preparing people for the kingdom also involved offering salvation to sinners—the corrupt, self-centered and godless—who needed to repent and live in light of the role reversals in the coming kingdom.[31]

Jesus believed that this message of the kingdom was good news and He actively called people to
live in the present in light of the future. Jesus spoke of this good news as a light on a hill that should not be hidden (Matt. 5:14–16; Mark 4:21).[32] Those who saw the light needed to abandon everything to proclaim and live the message in preparation for what was about to take place. Indeed, laborers are needed (Matt. 9:37; Luke 10:2; John 4:35), and Jesus Himself led the way.[33]

Jesus’ kingdom teachings were not difficult to understand, but they required absolute commitment, and no one should begin the journey before counting the cost, because it would cost everything (Luke 14:28–33)![34]

The Actions of Jesus

Ehrman points out that context determines meaning, and that the apocalyptic context of Jesus’ teachings provides clues to the meaning of His actions.[35] For example Jesus’ reputation as an exorcist is widely attested (Mark 1:21–28; 32–34, 39; 3:9–12; 5:1–20; 7:24–30; 9:14–29; M material in Matt. 9:32–34; L material in Luke 13:10; Acts 10:38),[36] but His exorcisms were not merely acts of compassion. Jesus was manifesting the power of God over the forces of evil in the present, in token of the total destruction of evil in the kingdom.[37]

Likewise, Jesus’ reputation as a healer is also widely attested (e.g., Mark 5:35–43; John 11:38–44).[38] But His healings were not simply acts of kindness. They were a foretaste of the kingdom in which there would be no disease or disabilities (Matt. 11:4–5; Luke 7:22).[39]

Another well-attested tradition concerns Jesus’ association with women. Women accompanied Him on His journeys (Mark 15:40–41; L material in Luke 8:1–3),[40] engaged in discussions with him (Mark 7:24–30; John 4:1–42), and supported him financially (Mark 15:40–41; Luke 8:1–3). Women were with Jesus even at His death and were the first to proclaim that he had risen from the dead (Matt. 27:55; Mark 15:40–41; Luke 23:49; John 19:25; Matt. 28:1–10; Mark 16:1–8; Luke 23:55–24:10; John 20:1–2).[41]

Some have interpreted Jesus’ association with women as if He were advocating a “radically egalitarian society.” [42] But since Jesus was not attempting to reform society—which was doomed for destruction—it is more likely that women were attracted to Him because of His apocalyptic message about the reversal of roles in the kingdom. Those who were at the low end of the social ladder, such as women, would be elevated in the kingdom. The fact that Jesus expected His followers to implement these changes in the present also explains why women and other social outcasts of his time would be among His followers.[43]

Jesus’ Death

Ehrman emphasizes that many historical reconstructions of Jesus’ life fail to establish a plausible link between Jesus’ life and message, and His death. Why, for example, would anyone crucify a Jewish rabbi who taught people to love God and be good to each other?[44] Although attested tradition shows that Jesus often clashed with Pharisees over the proper interpretation of the Law (Q material in Matt. 15:14 = Luke 6:39; 14:5 = Matt. 12:11; 23:23 = Luke 11:42; verse 52 = Matt. 23:13; L material in Luke 13:15; Mark 2:25–26; 7:19–23, John 7:22–23)[45] and that His message was met with widespread rejection (Mark 3:21, 31–35; 6:1–6; Matt. 13:53–58; Q material in Luke 10:13–15 = Matt. 11:20–24; John 4:4; 7:5),[46] these controversies were not what led to Jesus’ crucifixion. The religious leaders understood that Jesus’ message meant they would be recipients of judgment by one whom Jesus called “the Son of Man.” According to Ehrman, this is what led to Jesus’ execution.[47]

The Romans, of course, cared nothing for Jewish doctrines of the sensibilities of the Jewish religious leadership. They were concerned about the charges that Jesus considered Himself to be a king of the Jews (Mark 15:2, 26; John 18:33; 19:19). According to Ehrman—and contrary to many scholars of the Jesus Seminar—it is almost historically certain that some people thought of Jesus in these terms during his lifetime. Otherwise it would be hard to explain why after his death, his followers taught that he was the Messiah, because Jews did not expect a Messiah to raise from the dead. It was because of this royal claim that Pontius Pilate sentenced Jesus to crucifixion.[48]

Jesus’ Resurrection and beyond

According to Ehrman, although the resurrection of Jesus is highly attested,[49] it is still highly problematic. He says the earliest accounts of Jesus’ resurrection are impossible to reconcile.[50] And he says that since historians can only establish what probably happened and since miracles by their very nature are highly improbable, historians cannot conclude that Jesus rose from the dead.[51] Ehrman notes, however, “It is a historical fact that some of Jesus’ followers came to believe that he had been raised from the dead soon after his execution.” Ehrman points out that Christianity did not develop because of Jesus’ death. If there had been no subsequent belief in the resurrection, Jesus’ death would have likely been viewed as just another of a long line of tragic incidents, but it would not have been interpreted as an act of salvation and it is unlikely that a new religion would have developed.[52]

Jesus’ followers then concluded that Jesus had not only been raised, but had also been exalted to heaven and would one day return.[53] Christians soon began to identify the Son of Man in Daniel 7 with Jesus Himself.[54] Therefore, when Christians spoke or wrote of Jesus, they began to change what Jesus said about a coming Son of Man, using the first-person singular to make it refer to Jesus (Matt. 10:32; 16:13; Mark 8:27, 38). Before long, Jesus was being proclaimed as the Christ, the unique Son of God, and the Savior of the world. And a new religion was born.

Evaluation of Ehrman’s Work

Jesus’ Self-Understanding

One of the strengths of Ehrman’s book is that he is generally consistent in applying his historical criteria. It is therefore somewhat surprising that Ehrman failed to be consistent in his assessment of Jesus’ self understanding. Three areas are particularly noticeable.

First, as noted earlier, Ehrman insists that Jesus believed in a coming Son of Man who was someone other than Himself. Ehrman holds this view in spite of the fact that the tradition equating Jesus with the Son of Man is supported by the criteria of multiple independent attestation.

Ehrman would undoubtedly point out that not even the criteria of multiple independent attestation can be applied mechanically but must be balanced with other criteria. So, for example, though the resurrection is independently attested in multiple sources, Ehrman does not believe Jesus actually rose again because dead people just don’t come back to life after three days. Even if we were to grant Ehrman’s point here for the sake of argument, there are no such overriding considerations with regard to Jesus’ self-understanding. In other words, there is nothing impossible or necessarily improbable with the working assumption that Jesus could have thought of himself as the Jewish Messiah or even the Son of Man referred to in Daniel 7.

In The Christology of Jesus, Witherington argues that the theory that distinguishes Jesus from the Son of Man does not hold up. He points out that “nowhere else in the gospel tradition is there so much as a hint that Jesus expected a successor.”[55] Witherington also quotes I. Howard Marshall as saying that the theory which separates Jesus and the Son of Man requires the
“peculiar conclusion—that a proper response to Jesus now will lead to some favored status with a hitherto unknown Son of man. But why should this be the case if Jesus and the Son of man are not one and the same or if the connection is never made clear. In short, this theory raises more problems than it solves and is based on too little evidence.”[56]

Witherington notes that the theory that Jesus thought of the Son of Man as someone other than Himself might be thought of as being supported by only four passages (Matt. 19:28; Mark 13:26; 14:62; Luke 12:8–9),[57] whereas the vast majority of Son of Man sayings clearly identify Jesus with the Son of Man.

The four passages that supposedly support the distinction between Jesus and the Son of Man do not actually assert that there is a distinction; they simply leave the identity of the Son of Man ambiguous. On the other hand, Witherington points out that Luke 9:58, a passage that identifies Jesus with the Son of Man, is held by most critical scholars to be authentic. As Witherington notes, if only one saying in which Jesus identified himself as the Son of Man is authentic—and Luke 9:58 apparently does so—the view that makes a distinction between Jesus and the Son of Man would be shown to be a failure.[58]

The consistent application of Ehrman’s own criteria, therefore, leads to the conclusion that Jesus thought that he himself was the Son of Man of Daniel 7, who would sit at the right hand of the Father and rule over an everlasting kingdom.[59]

Second, the tradition about Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey in fulfillment of Zechariah 9:9 is supported by the criteria of multiple independent attestation (Mark 11:1–10 and John 12:12–15). Even so, Ehrman argues that this event is probably not historically accurate because Jesus was not arrested immediately.[60] But this is no proof that the event did not happen. The Gospels record that the Jewish leaders were concerned about the wide following Jesus commanded, and it is very plausible, therefore, that they might have proceeded carefully about the arrest of Jesus. The consistent application of Ehrman’s criteria would lead to the conclusion that Jesus did enter Jerusalem riding on a donkey and that He was deliberately presenting Himself as Israel’s King, a role Zechariah 9:9 seems to apply to Yahweh Himself.

Third, Ehrman argues that though the Lord’s Supper is supported by the criteria of multiple independent attestation (Matt. 26:26–29; Mark 14:22–25; Luke 22:15–20; 1Cor. 11:23–26) it is difficult to know how much of that event is historical since it seems “so heavily ‘Christianized’ with the doctrine of the saving effect of Jesus’ death.”[61] But as Witherington points out, “The idea of a human sacrificial death atoning for sin seems to have been very much alive in Judaism during Jesus’ era.”[62] The Lord’s Supper therefore meets both Ehrman’s criteria of multiple attestation and contextual credibility. Consistent application of Ehrman’s criteria leads to the conclusion that the Lord’s Supper is historical and that Jesus saw His death as having salvific significance, not unlike that portrayed in Isaiah 53.

More Than a Prophet

Using the criteria of independent attestation does not lead to conclusions about Jesus that differ wildly from the church’s traditional understanding. In fact, it can easily be shown that Jesus thought of Himself as more than a prophet:

Jesus not only claimed that he personally could grant forgiveness of sins but that he would one day “return” to separate his people from the rest and execute judgment on the nations, something presumably only Yahweh could do. He taught that those who would be his followers must be devoted to him above all else, which to the Jewish mind would probably have been a clear violation of the first commandment. He also seemed to have taught that people's eternal destiny would depend on their relation to him. Teachings like this would certainly account for the accusations of blasphemy leveled at Jesus.[63]

Witherington follows standard historical-critical methodology, focusing mostly on Q and the Gospel of Mark to demonstrate that Jesus thought of Himself as more than an ordinary human being.[64] For example Witherington points out that Jesus actually considered Himself above the Torah (e.g., Mark 2:18–28; 7:15). [65] Witherington also demonstrated that the phrase “Amen, I say to you,” which occurs numerous times in all four Gospels,[66] shows that Jesus spoke not just as a prophet of God, but as one speaking with His own divine authority and power.[67] According to Witherington Jesus believed that it was God’s will that He die as a ransom for many,[68] but that He would be vindicated after His death, coming in the clouds of heaven to judge the world, as indicated by Daniel’s vision of the Son of Man.[69] Jesus thought He was bringing about the eschatological blessings promised by Isaiah (Q material in Matt. 11:2–19 = Luke 7:18–35) and may even have seen Himself as the embodiment of divine wisdom.[70]
Is it historically possible that a Jesus, a first-century Jew, could have come to think of himself as the very embodiment of Yahweh? This can be answered in the affirmative for these reasons.

First, it is important to note that the appearance of gods as human beings was well known in contemporary Greek thought, and recent studies have asserted the widespread influence of Greek thought in Galilee. Second, one need only remember the story of Yahweh’s interaction with Abraham in Genesis 18 to know that the idea of God appearing to people as a human being was not foreign to Judaism either. Third, it was not unusual in the ancient world for a human being to think of himself as the embodiment of a god.[71] True, such thinking would have been unusual for a Jew and especially for a peasant, but the idea that God could become human was well known. Therefore the idea that Jesus thought of himself as “one with the Father” is not only supported by the criteria of multiple independent attestation but it is also contextually credible.

Explanation for Jesus’ Death

Ehrman makes the point that many historical reconstructions of Jesus rise or fall on their explanation of Jesus’ death. As Ehrman asks, why crucify a Jewish rabbi who taught people to love God and be good to each another?[72] Ehrman’s point is well taken. Whoever proposes a historical reconstruction of Jesus must take seriously that facts that the Jewish leadership wanted him dead and the Roman government agreed with their demands. There were numerous religious reformers and cynic sages in the ancient world but that didn’t automatically lead to a death sentence. But while Ehrman makes an excellent point, his own explanation for Jesus’ death is not convincing.

According to Ehrman, the Jewish leaders arranged Jesus’ execution because He taught that they would be recipients of God’s judgment.[73] But just predicting God’s judgment on the temple establishment does not seem to have been sufficient reason in itself for His execution, since the Essenes, too, threatened the temple establishment with God’s judgment. Besides, Ehrman’s view does not explain the tradition that Jesus was charged with blasphemy. A more historically probable explanation for Jesus’ death is that He thought of Himself as fulfilling Jewish prophecies about God coming to His people as their Shepherd and King. If Jesus taught these things to others, such teaching could have unquestionably led to charges of blasphemy by Jewish leaders. It would have been a very small step to turn such charges of blasphemy into charges of sedition before Pilate.


Many elements in Ehrman’s view of Jesus are convincing, 1) his conclusion that Jesus was a Jewish apocalyptic prophet, whose message centered on the kingdom of God in which there would be no poverty, illness, or oppression. 2) That for Jesus, absolutely nothing was as important as loving God and seeking His kingdom. 3) That Jesus called His followers to behave now as they will in the Kingdom, and this meant not only loving God above all else but also loving one’s neighbor and even one’s enemies. 4) That Jesus’ exorcisms and healings were not only acts of compassion; they were designed as a foretaste of His coming kingdom.

While these aspects of Jesus as presented by Ehrman are compelling, Ehrman’s views are inconsistent and incomplete. Witherington, N. T. Wright, and others have shown that Jesus saw Himself as more than a Jewish prophet. Jesus spoke as one who was above the Torah and the temple, one who could speak on His own divine authority and could forgive sins. He thought of His death as having salvific significance, consistent with Isaiah 53, and He believed He would return as the coming Son of Man, who would judge the world and rule over the kingdom of God, as seen in Daniel 7.[74]

That Jesus actually presented Himself as King, Son of Man, and Savior is a matter of history that has been well established by using the same historical criteria Ehrman used to present his own compelling view of Jesus.

But if someone—even in the first century A.D.—actually thought of himself in such lofty terms, why would anyone believe him? Would not someone like that be dismissed as crazy? First, it must be noted that most people did not believe Jesus. Some thought He was a blasphemer, others thought He was demon-possessed, and some thought He was insane.[75] The gospel sayings that record these views about Jesus meet the criteria of embarrassment which asserts that it is unlikely that early Christians would have made things up about Jesus that were not flattering or were even embarrassing. It is very unlikely that early Christians would have fabricated sayings about people thinking Jesus was insane or demon-possessed. If Jesus, therefore, taught that he was the fulfillment of prophecies about Yahweh coming to his people, the charges of blasphemy, demon possession or even insanity are what we might expect. This increases the historical probability that Jesus thought of Himself as more than just a Jewish prophet.

Those who did believe what Jesus taught about Himself probably did so for several reasons. First, they believed because of the compelling nature of His teaching. It was not the resurrection alone that convinced them that Jesus was the Messiah and Son of God. As Wright noted, “…for someone who had been certifiably dead to become alive again would mean that the world was indeed a stranger place than one had imagined; it would not at all justify a claim that the person to whom this odd event happened was therefore the saviour of the world, the ‘son of god’, or anything else in particular.” [76]

In other words, the earliest followers of Jesus believed that he was the Messiah and Son of God because that is what Jesus taught about himself. Their belief in the resurrection was the confirmation of what Jesus had already taught.[77]

Second, those who believed in Jesus did so because of His miracles. In Jesus’ day no one denied that He did amazing signs and wonders, but people differed in their view on the nature and source of those powers. Jesus’ enemies thought He was a sorcerer or that He did miracles by the power of Satan. His followers were well aware of traveling sorcerers but countered that no one has ever done miracles like these before! Third, those who believed in Jesus did so because they were absolutely convinced that He had risen from the dead. This is a fact that even Ehrman concedes.[78] Fourth, those who believed in Jesus did so because they were convinced that He had actually fulfilled prophecies in the Jewish Scriptures about a coming Messiah and about Yahweh coming to His temple and visiting His people.[79]

Ehrman was right in insisting that for Jesus, love for God and His kingdom is to be the highest priority. Ehrman referred to Matthew 10:37 and Luke 14:26 to show that for Jesus, the kingdom was more important than one’s closest relatives and loved ones.[80] But these verses actually present Jesus as saying that people must love Him—not just the kingdom— more than anything or anyone else. What Ehrman misses is that for Jesus, putting the Kingdom of God first also meant putting the King first—and Jesus believed that he was that King, the fulfillment of Jewish prophecies about Yahweh coming to his people![81]

With teachings like this, it’s no wonder that Jesus’ enemies said he was crazy or demon possessed. It’s no wonder that the religious leaders sought to have him executed for blasphemy. It’s no wonder the Romans would crucify him for sedition. And it’s also no wonder that those who believed in Jesus would give their lives for him and await his return. According to the gospels, Jesus once asked Peter, “But who do you say that I am?”[82] Consistent application of strict historical criteria has made those words just as relevant today as when Jesus first spoke them.

[1] Bart D. Ehrman, Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999).
[2] For other discussions on historical criteria as applied to the gospels see John P. Meier. A Marginal Jew. Vol. 1 (New York : Doubleday, 1991), 167-184. Robert H. Stein. Gospels and Tradition. (Grand Rapids : Baker, 1991), 153-187. E.P. Sanders and Margaret Davies. Studying the Synoptic Gospels. (Philadelphia : Trinity Press International, 1989), 301-344. N.T. Wright. The New Testament and the People of God. (Minneapolis : Fortress Press, 1992), 81-120. Ben Witherington. The Christology of Jesus. (Minneapolis : Fortress Press, 1990), 1-31.
[3] Ehrman, Jesus. 90-95.
[4] Ibid., x, 19. See Albert Schweitzer. The Quest for the Historical Jesus: A Critical Study of its progress from Reimarus to Wrede. Baltimore : Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998, 1910. Albert Schweitzer. A Psychiatric Study of Jesus. Magnolia, MA : Peter Smith, 1911.
[5] Ehrman, Jesus. 128.
[6] Although Ehrman doesn’t list specific authors, examples might be: John Dominic Crossan, 1991. The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant. San Francisco : HarperSanFrancisco. 1994. Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography. San Francisco : HarperSan Francisco. Burton Mack, 1988. A Myth of Innocence: Mark and Christian Origins. Philadelphia : Fortress Press. 1993. The Lost Gospel: The Book of Q and Christian Origins., San Francisco : Harper SanFrancisco. 1995. Who Wrote the New Testament: the Making of the Christian Myth. San Francisco : HarperSanFrancisco. Marcus Borg, 1994. Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time; The Historical Jesus and the Heart of Contemporary Faith. San Francisco : HarperSanFrancisco. 1984. Jesus in Contemporary Scholarship. Valley Forge, PA : Trinity Press International. 1987. Jesus; A New Vision: Spirit Culture and the Life of Discipleship. Harper & Row. Robert Funk. 1996. Honest to Jesus: Jesus for a New Millennium. San Francisco : HarperSanFrancisco.
[7] The letter “Q” (from German Quelle, “source”) is sometimes used to refer to a hypothetical document that may have been used by Matthew and/or Luke, a document that was allegedly the source of approximately two hundred verses common to Matthew and Luke that are not found in Mark. Q can also be used, as it will be in this article, as shorthand for material common to both Matthew and Luke, without comment on the plausibility of such a historical document.
[8] See for example, Burton Mack. The Lost Gospel; The Book of Q and Christian Origins. (San Francisco : HarperCollins, 1993). John Kloppenborg. The Formation of Q: Trajectories in Ancient Wisdom Collections. (Philadelphia : Fortress Press, 1987).
[9] Ehrman. Jesus, 133.
[10] See David Laird Dungan. A History of the Synoptic Problem. (New York : Doubleday, 1999), 368-391. Alan J. McNicol. Beyond the Q Impasse: Luke’s Use of Matthew. (Valley Forge, PA : Trinity Press International).
[11] See John Dominic Crossan. The Historical Jesus; The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant. (San Francisco : HarperCollins, 1991), 427-429).
[12] Ehrman, Jesus. 134. For an excellent analysis of two non-apocalyptic scholars, Burton Mack and John Dominic Crossan, see Gregory Boyd, Cynic Sage or Son of God. (Wheaton IL : Victor Books, 1995). See also N.T. Wright. Jesus and the Victory of God. (Minneapolis : Fortress Press, 1996), 28-82).
[13] Ehrman, Jesus. 128, 137.
[14] Ibid., 134–135.
[15] Ibid., 139 (e.g., 1 Thess. 4:13–18; 1 Cor. 15:51–57).
[16] Ibid., 167–168.
[17] Ibid., 177.
[18] Ibid., 143.
[19] Ibid., 179–180. See also the gospel of Thomas, 9.
[20] Ibid., 145–148, 158–159. See also the gospel of Thomas, 71.
[21] Ibid., 167-168. See also the gospel of Thomas, 109, 76.
[22] Ibid., 167.
[23] Ibid., 167.
[24] Ibid. 130. See also the gospel of Thomas, 55.
[25] Ibid., 166.
[26] Ibid., 171-172.
[27] Ibid., 175–176. See also the gospel of Thomas, 22.
[28] Ibid. 173-174.
[29] Ibid., 181.
[30] Ibid., 162.
[31] Ibid., 151–152.
[32] See also the gospel of Thomas, 33.
[33] Ehrman, Jesus, 181.
[34] Ibid., 169.
[35] Ibid., 183–184.
[36] It is important to note that Jesus’ exorcisms were interpreted apocalyptically (e.g., Matt. 12:27 = Luke 11:19–23).
[37] Ehrman, Jesus, 198.
[38] See also Dennis Ingolfsland. “Q,M,L and Other Sources for the Historical Jesus.” Princeton Theological Review. 4:5 (October, 1997), 20. For excellent discussions on Jesus’ healings see John P. Meier. A Marginal Jew; Rethinking the Historical Jesus. Volume 2. (New York : Doubleday, 1994), 509-772. Graham Twelftree. Jesus the Miracle Worker. (Downers Grove : Intervarsity Press, 1999). Graham Twelftree. Jesus the Exorcist. (Peabody, MA : Hendrickson1993).
[39] Ehrman, Jesus. 180, 200.
[40] See also the gospel of Thomas, 114.
[41] Ehrman, Jesus, 188–189. See also the gospel of Peter, 50-57.
[42] For example John Dominic Crossan. The Historical Jesus. San Francisco : HarperCollins Publishers, 1991.
[43] Ehrman, Jesus. 190.
[44] Ibid. 208.
[45] See also the gospel of Thomas, 34, 39.
[46] Ehrman. Jesus, 200–205. See also the gospel of Thomas, 31.
[47] Ibid., 206, 208–209, 218.
[48] Ibid., 218.
[49] For specific attestation see Dennis Ingolfsland. “Q, M, L and Other Sources for the Historical Jesus.” Princeton Theological Review. 4:3 (October, 1997), 21-22.
[50] But see John Wenham. The Easter Enigma; Are the Resurrection Accounts in Conflict. (Carlisle : Paternoster, 1996) who provides a very plausible solution to the problem.
[51] Ehrman, Jesus, 227–228. For excellent contrary opinions on miracles and history, see John P. Meier. A Marginal Jew; Rethinking the Historical Jesus. Volume 2. (New York : Doubleday, 1994), 509-534. Graham H. Twelftree. Jesus the Miracle Worker. (Downers Grove, IL : Intervarsity Press, 1999), 38-53.
[52] Ehrman, Jesus.. 231. See also N.T. Wright. The New Testament and the People of God. (Minneapolis : Fortress Press, 1992), 399., who takes this argument one step further. Wright argues that if a person came back to life in the ancient world others might be convinced that the world was truly a strange place, but a resurrection alone was not likely to convince someone that the resurrected person was the Messiah or Son of God. If Jesus had not taught his disciples that he was the Messiah and Son of God, it is difficult to understand why belief in his resurrection would have automatically lead to that conclusion.
[53] Ibid., 233. See also Witherington. The Christology of Jesus, 175–176.
[54] Ehrman, Jesus, 233.
[55] Witherington, Christology, 257.
[56] Ibid., 257.
[57] Ibid., 257. Ehrman believes Matthew 19:28 is a church formulation. Mark 8:38 was not included since it is probably just a variant of Luke 12:8–9.
[58] Witherington; Christology, 257
[59] Daniel 7.
[60] Ehrman, Jesus, 210.
[61] Ibid., 215.
[62] See 4 Maccabees 6:27–29; 2 Maccabees 7:37–38; and Witherington, The Christology of Jesus, 252.
[63] Dennis Ingolfsland, “Q, M, L, and Other Sources for the Historical Jesus,” Princeton Theological Review 4 (October 1997): 17–22.
[64] Witherington, Christology, 29–30.
[65] Ibid., 65, 69, 80. E.g. Mark 2:18–28; 7:15.
[66] The phrase is highly attested at all levels: “thirteen times in Mark, nine in Q, nine in M, nine in L, twenty-five times in John” (Ibid., 187).
[67] Witherington, Christology, 189.
[68] Ibid., 252.
[69] Ibid., 262.
[70] Ibid., 51–52. Witherington notes that in early Judaism wisdom was viewed as a divine being expressing the mind of God to people and desiring to live with them, but who is rejected by people (Job 1, 28; Prov. 1, 8; Sir. 1, 24; 11QPs-a 18; Baruch 3–4, 48; 1 Enoch 42; 4 Ezra 5:2.
[71] For example, Ovid’s Metamorphosis (8.626-724) has a story about the god’s visiting an elderly couple. That this story was taken seriously by some is reflected in the book of Acts (14:8-15) when the people of Lystra welcomed Paul and Barnabas as gods. Some of the Caesar’s also seemed to think of themselves as divine or sons of gods.
[72] Witherington, Christology, 208.
[73] Ibid., Jesus, 206, 208–209, 218.
[74] Dennis Ingolfsland. “Q, M, L, and Other Sources for the Historical Jesus.” Princeton Theological Review. (October, 1997): 20-21. See also Ben Witherington. The Christology of Jesus. Minneapolis : Fortress Press, 1990. N.T. Wright. The New Testament and the People of God. Minneapolis : Fortress Press, 1992. N.T. Wright. Jesus and the Victory of God. Minneapolis : Fortress Press, 1996.
[75] These views meet the criterion of embarrassment, that is, it is highly unlikely that early Christians would have made up such things about Jesus had they not been true. In fact that these things are even recorded at all speaks volumes about the honesty and objectivity of the Gospel writers.
[76] N. T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God. (Minneapolis : Fortress Press, 1992), 399.
[77] This is in stark contrast to many modern scholars who, following Wrede, believe that Jesus did not believe he was the Messiah or Son of God and that these ideas were only attributed to him by the church long after his death.
[78] See also E.P. Sanders. The Historical Figure of Jesus. (New York : Penguin Press, 1993), 10-11. E.P. Sanders is one of the world’s foremost Jesus scholars and, though not a Christian, is convinced that it is almost beyond dispute that Jesus’ earliest disciples believed they had seen him after his death (Sanders adds, “in what sense is not certain).
[79] While some prophecies were undoubtedly deliberately fulfilled by Jesus as a prophetic statement—such as riding into Jerusalem on a donkey—others were not under his human control, like his birth in Bethlehem. While most non-evangelical scholars assert that Jesus was probably born in Nazareth rather than Bethlehem, his birth in Bethlehem is supported by the criteria of multiple independent attestation while a Nazareth birth has no support at all. In fact, my suspicion is that the only real reason for denying Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem is because it fulfills prophecy. On a human level, however, which makes more historical sense, 1) that the early church made up a story about their King being born in a stable in Bethlehem, or 2) that Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem and his lineage from David (which is also supported by the criteria of multiple independent attestation) are among the factors that led to Jesus’ thinking about his own mission and ministry as Messiah.
[80] Ehrman, Jesus, 170.
[81] See for example, Isaiah 35:4-6; Zechariah 2:10-12; 8:3; 9:9-10; 12:8-10; 14:1-9. Ezekiel 34:11-25; 43:7 et al.
[82] Mark 8:27-29; Matthew 16:13-17; Luke 9:18-20.