Jesus According to Atheist Bart Ehrman
What does the New Testament tell us about the historical figure of Jesus himself?
There can be no doubt that Jesus of Nazareth has been the most influential person in the history of the world. The church founded on his name shaped the history of Western Civilization, and over two billion people worship him today.
And yet, because of the nature of our sources, it is surprisingly difficult to know what he actually said and did.
Jesus is thought to have died around 30 CE. He is not referred to in any Greek or Roman sources of the first century, and only briefly in our major Jewish source of the period, the historian Josephus. The earliest Christian references are from the New Testament, but most of the twenty-seven books say nothing about his words and deeds.
The four Gospels are by far our most important sources and these certainly do contain significant historical information. But they are also theological reflections on the meaning of his life and death, less concerned to report bare facts than to reflect on their meaning. Historians work diligently to get behind these reflections to determine what Jesus actually said, did, and experienced.
It is clear that Jesus was …
It is clear that Jesus was raised in a small hamlet, Nazareth, in the northern part of Israel. He was born sometime around the turn of the Common Era (4 BCE ?) in a relatively large family with brothers and sisters. We know nothing definite of his life and activities as a boy and young man, other than what we can learn from archaeology and inference. Jews in this region spoke Aramaic; Nazareth was impoverished with a small population (a couple of hundred people?); houses were roughly constructed, small, and crowded; there was no synagogue building, school, or public building of any kind; people were uneducated, lived a hand-to-mouth existence, and as a rule did not travel.
We do know that as an adult (around 30 CE?) Jesus left Nazareth to participate in the movement of a prophet called John the Baptist who was urging his followers to undergo a ritual of water baptism for cleansing of their sins because God was soon to intervene in the world to destroy all that was opposed to him in order to bring a new kingdom on earth where evil would be destroyed and only good would prevail. Jesus left his home, family, and work to be baptized by John, and almost certainly became his follower.
Eventually Jesus split off to engage in his own itinerate preaching ministry. He gathered a small group of followers and soon chose twelve to be his inner circle. The Gospels contain numerous accounts of great miracles that he did: healing the sick, casting out demons, controlling the forces of natures, and raising the dead. It is not clear if such stories–commonly attributed to great Sons of God in antiquity–originated during his lifetime or only later. He spent a good deal of his time teaching, and, like most Jewish teachers at the time, had heated disagreements with others about the proper interpretation of the law of Moses.
The Gospels record different versions of his message, though there is strong continuity among the first three, Matthew, Mark, and Luke (John appears to represent a later, more spiritualized version). Jesus’ principally preached about the coming Kingdom of God in a way similar to John the Baptist but also to other “apocalyptic” teachers, such as those connected with the Dead Sea Scrolls.
The term apocalyptic means “revelatory.” Many Jews at the time believed God had “revealed” to them the future course of history: the world had been corrupted by the forces of evil, but God had set a time limit to their power. In the very near future, God would enter deliver his people from their oppression and suffering. But unlike past acts of salvation, this one would be decisive. God would forever change the course of affairs on earth and to bring in a world where there was no more evil, sin, misery, or suffering.
This kingdom was not to be a heavenly existence with God above (e.g., when a person dies). It was a real kingdom here on earth, where God would rule supreme. When it arrived, the wicked would be destroyed and the righteous would enter into god’s glorious reign. But judgment would come also to those who had already died. At the end of this age, coming soon, God would raise all people from the dead. The wicked would see the error of their ways before facing annihilation; the righteous would be restored to their bodies, to live forever in the kingdom.
The heart and core of Jesus’ message was that the people of Israel needed to “repent, for the Kingdom of God is almost here” (Mark 1:15). One of Jesus’ characteristic ways of teaching this message was by speaking in parables, simple stories about everyday life that conveyed deeper religious truths.
Jesus was certainly a great moral teacher, but his ethical message was delivered within this apocalyptic context. People needed to reform how they lived precisely because the kingdom was coming soon. Only those who lived as God demanded would enter the kingdom. God’s instructions were established in the Jewish Scriptures, which could be summarized by two of the main commandments of the law of Moses: the followers of God were to love him with all their “heart, soul, and strength” (Deuteronomy 6:4-6); and they were to love their neighbors “as themselves” (Leviticus 19:18).
For Jesus, this meant living in ways the reflected the values of the future kingdom. In the kingdom there would be no poverty, so the people of God needed to help the poor now; there would be no injustice, so they needed to help the outcast and oppressed now; there would be no illness, so they should tend to the sick now; there would be no suffering then, so they should help those in pain now. Those who lived this way would enter the kingdom. Those who refused would be annihilated.
Jesus spent almost his entire preaching career in the northern part of Israel, his native Galilee. The last week of his life he and his disciples made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, the capital city of Judea, the site of God’s temple, the center of Jewish worship. While there Jesus preached his message and declared that the coming destruction would affect not only the Jews’ enemies on earth, but even many of the prominent Jewish leaders themselves and the institutions they supported. He predicted that the temple itself was soon to be destroyed.
Passover was a highly incendiary time in Jerusalem. The festival celebrated God’s destruction of Israel’s enemies in the days of Moses (the Egyptians). Many people in Jesus’ day were hoping God would act once more, that he would raise up a great ruler to destroy the Romans and reinstate Israel as a sovereign state. In Jesus’ day, Jerusalem at Passover swelled in size as pilgrims flooded in to celebrate the festival. This was one time of the year when the Roman governor of Judea, in this case Pontius Pilate, would come to the city from his residence on the coast, bringing troops to keep the peace in case of uprisings caused by religious fervor.
When the Jewish authorities in Jerusalem learned that Jesus was declaring that God’s destruction was coming soon, and that he was issuing threats against both them and the institutions they supported, they began to fear an uprising. To nip it in the bud, they arranged with their Roman overlords to have Jesus taken out of the public eye. Rumors had circulated that Jesus had declared he himself would be the new king once the Romans had been destroyed. He was arrested and sent to Pontius Pilate. Pilate determined he was a trouble maker and condemned him with sedition for calling himself the “king of the Jews.” Jesus was immediately taken out and crucified.
Sometime afterward, the followers of Jesus claimed God had raised him from the dead and made him the Lord of all. That marked the beginning of Christianity.