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Jesus Interrupted 5: Liar, Lunatic, or Lord? Finding the Historical Jesus


Ehrman is trying to show that the Jesus of Christian tradition is a legend, that is, Jesus existed as a human, events occurred, and over large amounts of time, those events were exaggerated and made more magical to prove a point.

Ehrman starts by pointing out the difficulties. We have no writings from eyewitnesses, and our first sources come 35-40 years after Jesus was crucified. We have no pagan sources until about 100 years later. The Christian sources are of the weakest type, with intentions that present a conflict of interest when writing the truth. These Gospel accounts also conflict in both details, and in overarching messages, showing that the authors were pushing specific viewpoints, and not necessarily interested in the truth.

What is likely to be the case, based on the earliest, most attested sources, is that Jesus was an apocalypticist, like John the Baptist, and said that the world would be transformed shortly. The earliest accounts show Jesus never claiming to be divine, and saying that the kingdom was approaching rapidly. Later accounts, namely John, were the ones to divinize Jesus, and they also changed his message from immediate kingdom coming, to an unknown time line.

Ehrman’s weakest part was probably his point saying that miracles, by definition, cannot be shown to have probably occurred by historical method. He does this by defining miracles as necessarily the least likely occurrence, and then saying that since historical method can only show what probably happened, and miracles can’t be probable, they cannot be shown to be true. Unfortunately, this seems to fall very short. All things equal, miracles are less probably than naturalistic explanations, but given enough evidence, a miracle can be shown to have probably occurred. Naturalistic explanations can be ruled out given enough independent sources showing that Jesus was dead, then was alive.

Kindle Notes:

But who was telling the stories about Jesus? In almost every instance, it was someone who had not known Jesus or known anyone else who had known Jesus (2307).

John heard different stories than did Mark, and when he heard the same stories he heard them differently. The Gospel writers themselves evidently changed the stories of their sources (remember how Luke changed Mark’s account of Jesus going to his death). If things could change that much just from one writer to the next, imagine how much they could change in the oral tradition (2324).

What do Greek and Roman sources have to say about Jesus? Or to make the question more pointed: if Jesus lived and died in the first century (death around 30 CE), what do the Greek and Roman sources from his own day through the end of the century (say, the year 100) have to say about him? The answer is breathtaking. They have absolutely nothing to say about him (2338).

Only in the last Gospel, John, does Jesus no longer preach that this kingdom is arriving soon. And why is this teaching not in the last of our Gospels? No doubt because the kingdom never did arrive, and the later Gospel writer was forced to reinterpret Jesus’ message for his own day. The earliest Gospel traditions, though, portray Jesus’ message as about the coming kingdom (2479).

This is contained in Paul’s writings, the earliest Christian documents we have. The early Christians, like Jesus before them, and John the Baptist before him, were apocalyptically minded Jews, expecting the imminent end of the age (2548).

the significance of the baptism makes sense only within an apocalyptic context (2563).

Why did Jesus side with John? Because he agreed with his message, not with the messages of all the others. Like John before him and his followers afterward, Jesus was an apocalypticist (2571).

Historians can establish only what probably happened in the past, but miracles, by their very nature, are always the least probable explanation for what happened. This is true whether you are a believer or not (2770).

the reality is that there are lots of other explanations for what happened to Jesus that are more probable than the explanation that he was raised from the dead. None of these explanations is very probable, but they are more probable, just looking at the matter historically, than the explanation of the resurrection (2785).

Suppose—here is my wild hypothesis—that Jesus was buried by Joseph of Arimathea in Joseph’s own family tomb, and then a couple of Jesus’ followers, not among the twelve, decided that night to move the body somewhere more appropriate. Only Matthew indicates there was a guard at the tomb; what if there wasn’t? But a couple of Roman legionnaires are passing by, and catch these followers carrying the shrouded corpse through the streets. They suspect foul play and confront the followers, who pull their swords as the disciples did in Gethsemane. The soldiers, expert in swordplay, kill them on the spot. They now have three bodies, and no idea where the first one came from. Not knowing what to do with them, they commandeer a cart, take the corpses out to Gehenna, outside town, and dump them. Within three or four days the bodies have deteriorated beyond recognition. Jesus’ original tomb is empty, and no one seems to know why. Is this scenario likely? Not at all. Am I proposing this is what really happened? Absolutely not. Is it more probable that something like this happened than that a miracle happened and Jesus left the tomb to ascend to heaven? Absolutely! (2791).

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