If Jesus was wrong about the world ending 2,000 years ago, what does it mean to follow him today? An interview with Bart D. Ehrman.
By John D. Spalding
Every holiday season, we can count on at least three things: a flood of yuletide TV specials, mayhem at the malls, and more skirmishes in the Christmas culture wars, as Christian groups try to stem the tide of secularism and “put Christ back in Christmas.” Ironically, it’s often Christmas’ biggest defenders who take for granted the “reason for the season”: Jesus—who he really was, what he actually said and did. They talk about Jesus with an easy familiarity, as if he were a kid brother or a next-door neighbor, and not an enigmatic prophet who lived in an alien world 2,000 years ago.
The truth is, people have always disagreed about who Jesus was and why he matters. Even those closest to Jesus, his family and followers, had trouble figuring him out. And we face obstacles they didn’t. The four Gospels of the New Testament, our main sources of information about Jesus, offer different and sometimes conflicting accounts, and it’s easy to see why. The Gospels were written 35 to 65 years after Jesus lived, and they weren’t based on eyewitness reports but on stories that had evolved as they circulated by word of mouth in various lands and languages for decades.
So who was the “real” Jesus? For help sorting out an answer, I called Bart D. Ehrman, a leading authority on the life of Jesus, the New Testament, and the early church. Ehrman is a professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and the author of numerous books, including the New York Times bestseller, Misquoting Jesus; The Lost Gospel of Judas Iscariot; Peter, Paul, & Mary Magdalene; Lost Christianities; and Lost Scriptures. But the book I particularly wanted to discuss with Ehrman was an earlier, fascinating work of scholarship he wrote entitled, Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium.
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‘Tis the season, so let’s start with the birth of Christ. Alas, Jesus wasn’t born in Bethlehem, was he?
Most scholars say Jesus was probably born in Nazareth, not Bethlehem. All four Gospels assume Jesus came from Nazareth, but two of them, Matthew and Luke, want to say he was born in Bethlehem. Why? For theological reasons, because there’s an Old Testament prophecy, in Micah 5: 2, which indicates that the savior will come from Bethlehem. But if you compare Matthew’s and Luke’s accounts of how Jesus was born there, you’ll see they contradict each other.
As Luke tells it, Jesus’ parents were living in Nazareth when Caesar Augustus ordered a census requiring everyone in the Roman Empire to return to their ancestral home to register. So Mary and Joseph have to go to Bethlehem—Joseph’s ancestral home—and while they’re there, as it turns out, Mary gives birth to Jesus. Matthew, on the other hand, claims Jesus’ parents were living in Bethlehem when Jesus was born. But then Matthew has to get Jesus’ family to Nazareth. He does this by saying that Mary and Joseph were forced to leave Bethlehem after Jesus was born because Herod’s family was out to kill the child. Obviously, Matthew and Luke can’t both be right.
Luke probably cooked up the census, right?
That’s what’s interesting about the census—only Luke mentions it. There’s no word of it in the other Gospels, or anywhere else in the New Testament. And we know a lot about the reign of Caesar Augustus, and no other source cites an empire-wide census. Imagine if we all had to return to the home our ancestors, where they lived a thousand years or so ago. The consequences would be profound, and historians would certainly take note.
You see Jesus as an apocalyptic prophet. What did Jewish apocalyptic prophets believe?
Apocalyptic thinking began about 150 years before the birth of Jesus, and apocalypticists were Jews who thought that the world was not controlled by God, but by forces opposed to God. They believed these dominating evil forces were increasing in power, and that God would intervene to overthrow the evil empire and replace it with a good kingdom on earth. And they believed God was going to do this very soon.
How widespread was this thinking in Jesus’ day?
It was very prevalent among Jews in the first century, and it wasn’t restricted to just one group or party. For example, it appears that the Pharisees and the Essenes, who produced the Dead Sea scrolls, were apocalyptic in their understanding of the world. And then there were individuals, like John the Baptist and other prophets, who weren’t connected to any group and they were apocalyptic in their thinking.
Why were there so many apocalyptic Jews in the first century?
It was partly because Jews were being oppressed by foreign powers, and they felt helpless. They believed that God simply would not allow this evil domination to go on much longer. So this notion that the end is near and that the kingdom of God is coming soon wasn’t something Jesus came up with. He stood in a long line of apocalyptic thinkers.
How does he figure in this tradition?
Jesus began his public ministry by becoming a follower of John the Baptist, another Jewish apocalyptic prophet. From the sources that refer to John, we know he predicted the end was near. He said that “the ax is lying at the roots of the trees. Every tree that doesn’t bear good fruit will be chopped down and cast into the fire.” It’s a vivid image of judgment that awaits those who have sided with evil. And it’s an image of imminent judgment—the ax is already laid at the roots, meaning that the trees are ready to be chopped down now. By associating with John the Baptist, Jesus deliberately began his ministry on an apocalyptic note.
You arrive at your portrait of Jesus by relying on the earlier biblical sources, such as Mark and Q. Could you explain how this works?
Those who’ve studied the historical Jesus over the past 300 years have realized that the biblical sources portray Jesus in different ways, and that if you want to know what Jesus was really like you need to look at the earliest sources available. Mark was probably the first Gospel written. And there was apparently a Gospel that existed at one time that we no longer have, a Gospel of Jesus' sayings scholars have called “Q,” from the German word “Quelle,” or “Source.” Q consists of material found in Matthew and Luke but not in Mark. And what’s striking is that the earliest sources, both Mark and Q, present Jesus as predicting that the “Son of Man” will soon come from heaven to destroy all that is evil and set up God’s kingdom.
But the later sources changed Jesus’ apocalyptic message…
Right. In the Gospel of John or the Gospel of Thomas, for example, Jesus is no longer making apocalyptic proclamations. And the most reasonable inference is that the earlier sources present Jesus as an apocalyptic prophet because that’s what he really was. He really did proclaim the coming of the end of this age, and the appearance of the kingdom of God. But when the kingdom didn’t come, as Jesus’ first followers thought it would, his later followers, like John and Thomas, transformed Jesus’ message so he’s no longer predicting something everyone knew didn’t happen.
And to fill in our timeline, you note that Christianity didn’t really exist until after Jesus’ death, when his followers started to believe Jesus had been resurrected.
That’s right. The striking thing about Christianity is that it represents not only what Jesus himself taught, but it represents teachings about Jesus. Or, to put it another way, the religion of Jesus became a religion about Jesus.
Jesus thought that the end of the age was coming soon and that people needed to repent and return to God so they could enter the kingdom. But after his death, his disciples came to believe that he was raised from the dead, and that changed their entire outlook.
Well, it confirmed that the end was in fact near, because at the end of the age, when God intervened to overthrow the forces of evil, he was also going to resurrect the dead. And those he raised from the dead would either be brought into an eternal kingdom, or they would be subject to eternal torment. Since the followers of Jesus came to believe Jesus had been raised from the dead, they believed that the resurrection had already started. Which for them meant that the end had arrived and was soon to be consummated. That’s why the Apostle Paul, for example, believed that Jesus’ resurrection was the “first fruit”—an agricultural image meaning that Jesus was the first to be harvested and that everybody else is soon to follow suit. Paul himself thought that he would be alive when the end came. Thus, Jesus’ apocalyptic message lived on in his early followers, who were also apocalypticists and expected the imminent end of the world.
Let’s review this. Jesus had proclaimed the imminent arrival of God’s kingdom and the resurrection of the dead, but then he died and the kingdom of God didn’t come. So his followers must have asked themselves, “Was Jesus wrong?” But wait, there’s a loophole! If Jesus himself happened to have been raised from the dead, then he was right—and the end is still just around the corner!
Right. And this is where an interesting movement occurs. During his life, Jesus proclaimed the coming of the end. But after his death, his followers came to understand Jesus not as the proclaimer but as the proclaimed—the one who is going to bring about this end. It’s a critical transformation. I think that when Jesus taught about the coming kingdom he fully expected that he and the disciples would be alive to see it. At one point in the Gospels he tells the disciples that when the kingdom arrives those 12 will be sitting on the 12 thrones ruling over the tribes of Israel. And so the expectation is that the kingdom would come in their lifetimes. And the disciples, who knew Jesus as their master, no doubt thought he would be overseeing them as they ruled over Israel.
But when Jesus was crucified this plan was thrown completely into disarray. Because like all other first-century Jews, Jesus’ disciples did not believe that the messiah would be crucified. But instead of becoming the messiah, Jesus was killed as a lowly criminal. This would have disconfirmed everything they thought about him.
Which brings us back to the resurrection…
Right. For some reason Jesus’ followers came to think God had vindicated him by raising him from the dead. And this renewed their faith that he was the messiah, but a messiah very different from anything any of them, including Jesus, had originally thought. Jesus was no longer going to be a human ruler over Jerusalem. He was going to be a kind of cosmic judge over the earth.
This raises a point of confusion for some concerning whether Jesus understood himself to be human or divine. In Mark’s Gospel, he doesn’t see himself as divine.
Nowhere in Mark’s Gospel does Jesus portray himself as divine, and that’s really striking. In fact, the notion of divinity isn’t associated with Jesus in any of the earlier Gospels. He is, however, considered to be the “Son of God,” but for Jewish thinkers that was very different from being divine. Because the term “Son of God” referred to a human being God had chosen to mediate his will on earth. So for Jesus’ early Jewish believers thinking of Jesus as Son of God didn’t make him divine. In fact, it meant the exact opposite—that he was fully human. Just as they considered David, the former king of Israel, to be the Son of God, so they considered Jesus, the future king of Israel, to be the Son of God.
But in Mark’s Gospel there’s a lot of confusion about Jesus’ identity. Whenever anyone acknowledges Jesus as the Son of God he tells them not to tell anyone. And no one, including the disciples, really understands what this means until the end of the Gospel, when the Roman centurion, upon seeing Jesus die on the cross, acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God. I’m not sure that it’s historically accurate, but it expresses Mark’s view that Jesus is the Son of God precisely because he died, rather than because he reigned. Now, Mark is writing some 30 years after Jesus’ death, and he’s trying to explain how the Son of God could have been crucified. And Mark offers a theological explanation—the Son of God had to be crucified.
We often confuse the terms “Son of God” and “Son of Man,” and some think they mean the same thing.
Right, we tend to think today that Jesus was both human and divine, and that the “Son of God” refers to his divinity while “Son of Man” refers to his humanity. But in Jewish thinking these terms mean just the opposite. The Son of God was human and the Son of Man was divine, and they weren’t the same person. This is one of the most complicated aspects of New Testament scholarship—what the term “Son of Man” actually meant in Jesus’ day and what he meant when he used it. And part of the complication is that Jesus uses the term “Son of Man” in different ways at different times. And it’s not clear that Jesus actually uttered all the sayings about the Son of Man attributed to him. In fact, there’s very good reason to think that Jesus’ later followers put some of these sayings on his lips in light of their own theological beliefs.
So what did Jesus mean by “Son of Man”?
He seems to be referring to a figure mentioned in the Book of Daniel, 7:13-14, where the Son of Man is a cosmic judge over the earth at the end of time. This fits in well with Jesus’ other apocalyptic teachings. But when Jesus refers to the Son of Man in this way he doesn’t appear to be referring to himself. He seems to be referring to someone else who will bring in the kingdom.
And so what a lot of 20th- and 21st-century scholars have thought is that Jesus predicted that God would send a cosmic savior, someone called the Son of Man, who would bring in the kingdom, and that Jesus would rule over this kingdom as the Son of God.
Many Christians think that Jesus’ teachings about the kingdom of God and the end times were somehow new or special. Were they?
Well, the general tenor of Jesus’ teachings was very much like what a lot of other prophets were saying at the time and had been saying for centuries. Jesus obviously said certain things that contributed to his crucifixion. For example, he proclaimed that God was going to destroy the temple in Jerusalem when he judged his people. That didn’t sit kindly with the civil authorities who were in charge of the temple, and it’s one of the reasons they had him arrested. He was lambasting their locus of power. But even in this proclamation Jesus wasn’t unique. Five hundred years before Jesus, the prophet Jeremiah predicted that the temple was going to be destroyed. And like Jesus, he was persecuted for saying this.
When Jesus went to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover, do you think he realized what kind of trouble he was walking into?
I think it’s very hard to know. My hunch is that Jesus had probably spent the bulk, if not all, of his ministry in rural Galilee, in small villages and the countryside. He didn’t visit cities. And it’s not until the end of his life—the last week of his life—that he makes a trip to the big city, Jerusalem. He may never have been there before. Of course, in the Gospels, he makes several trips to Jerusalem, but I’m not sure those are historical recollections.
So when Jesus finally went to the big city, he saw this enormous temple, and all of the wealth and lavishness associated with it. He found this to be upsetting, a blasphemous violation of God’s will. So Jesus overturned some tables and insisted that people stop selling sacrificial animals as part of the sacrificial cult.
But I’m not sure Jesus planned to do this, at least I don’t think he figured that if he acted out he’d then be arrested and crucified. I see it as Jesus’ natural reaction to what he saw going on around him, based on his apocalyptic message that God was opposed to lavish expenditure. Jesus believed that God was more concerned about the poor and the needy, and had called his people to change direction in their religion.
Jesus’ temple tantrum, if you will, makes a lot of sense when you see him as an apocalyptic prophet. If Jesus thought God was going to overturn the world tomorrow, then God was certainly going to overturn everything Jesus had witnessed at the temple.
Well, that’s right. And in that sense Jesus’ so-called cleansing of the temple was a symbolic act illustrating his broader message. By overturning the tables, Jesus enacted a parable of disruption, indicating that what he was doing on a small scale in the temple, God himself would soon be doing on a very large scale, overthrowing the temple and all who sided with it.
And Jesus’ life makes sense in a whole different light when you think of him as an apocalypticist. For example, Jesus was single, apparently by choice. Well, of course he was. If the world is running on borrowed time, why would he want to get married, settle down in a nice community, and join a softball team?
Exactly. And his most familiar teachings, too, make the most sense when understood as apocalyptic teachings. When he says, “blessed are the poor”—well, why are the poor blessed? Because when the kingdom comes, they are going to be rich. Why are people who are mourning blessed? Because when the kingdom comes they are going to rejoice. The kingdom is going to reverse the reality of this world—all of its experiences and values. Everyone’s status will be inverted. The first will be last, the last will be first. The humble will be exalted, and the exalted will be humbled.
If Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet, we can take more of what he says at face value. But many Christians prefer to read Jesus’ apocalyptic proclamations non-literally, as spiritual metaphors. Do you think they do this out of convenience—because if they took Jesus at his word, they’d have to admit he was just plain wrong about a lot of things?
Oh, sure. When people insert metaphors where Jesus is speaking straightforwardly, they simply don’t want to believe that Jesus meant what he said. In fact, I believe that he did mean what he said. When Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come in power,” I think he really meant it. Jesus believed that the Son of Man was going to arrive in power, and that they were going to see it happen before they died. There’s nothing in the text to suggest Jesus meant that as a metaphor.
Similarly, when Jesus says that, when the Son of Man arrives, the sun will darken and the moon will turn to blood, and the stars will fall from the sky—he means it. This world is going to be overturned and a real new kingdom is going to be established.
Right, and again, Jesus didn’t think this would happen in some distant future, like 2,000 or more years later…
No, no—within his generation! Just as other apocalyptic teachers thought it would, including Jesus’ followers, like the apostle Paul. Or the author of the Book of Revelation. And there have always been people who think the world is going to end in their lifetime, even today. Take the success of the “Left Behind” series. Well, the belief that the end is going to come any day now goes straight back to Jesus.
And they’ve all been wrong—including Jesus. Which brings us to the question some readers surely must be asking themselves at this point: What does it mean to follow Jesus in the 21st century?
But doesn’t seeing Jesus in his historical context make him much less relevant today than many Christians would like to believe? If Jesus was a man of his time and place, and thus had ideas about God and the world that reflected an ancient worldview, how readily can or should 21st-century Christians embrace Jesus’ religious vision? In other words, if Jesus was wrong about God’s cosmic timetable, couldn’t he have been wrong about some of his other ideas, such as God’s sovereignty?
Jesus’ historical context doesn’t necessarily make him less relevant. But it does mean that believers have to think hard about what his relevance is. Today no one would accept the medical views of a doctor living in first-century rural Galilee, or the philosophical views of a philosopher living then and there, or the judicial views of a magistrate. Why would we accept the religious views of a prophet living then?
I’m not saying Jesus’ views should not be accepted, but it’s very important first to figure out what those views were and then to see if they are relevant to our present context. And if they are so deeply rooted in the views that he inherited as a rural Jew living in a remote and impoverished corner of the Roman Empire 2,000 years ago, then they may no longer represent what we know and can accept in our modern world.
I should add that Christians do this all the time—pick and choose what in the old records of the Bible is relevant for the situation of people today. Christians, for example, eat ham sandwiches; women normally aren’t required to cover their heads in church; and no one stones their children for disobeying them. We have to live intelligent lives, using our minds and understanding—even if we believe in writings, and people, who lived in a world different from ours.
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John D. Spalding is the editor of SoMAreview.com. His last piece was The Zombie Gospel.
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