(Part 2) The Philosophy of History: Professor Bart Ehrman’s New Course Comparing and Contrasting The Apostle Paul With The Historical Jesus

Last Time:

(Part 1) The Philosophy of History: Professor Bart Ehrman’s New Course Comparing and Contrasting The Apostle Paul With The Historical Jesus

Now, Part 2


Last time, I introduced that I will be taking Bart Ehrman’s course on comparing/contrasting Paul and the historical Jesus. We thought a bit about the Philosophy of History, which naturally led us to ask a bit about Philosophy. What I am doing in these two posts is to activate background knowledge and provide context for appropriating Ehrman’s course.

One of them main things I looked at last time is how Ehrman uses historical reasoning to go behind Paul and Mark to see an historical Jesus who taught salvation through strict adherence to the law rather than the cross/resurrection. The reasoning works like this: why would Mark include a story of the Rich Man which contradicts the central point of his gospel of the fundamental nature of the cross and what Jesus accomplished on it unless it was historical, in whole or as a theme? That lets us peer back into the historical Jesus before cross theology was developed. Sounds historically air tight? Actually, there is another hurdle Ehrman needs to clear to be on sound historical footing.

Regarding Ehrman and Mark’s story of the Rich Man, the historical reasoning is interesting, being that if Mark included a story that contradicted his central theme of vicarious atonement cross salvation, then the historical Jesus must have taught salvation via strict adherence to the law.  If the crucifixion and resurrection weren’t part of the original faith, then mythicism is wrong that Jesus was originally a Jewish version of a dying/rising savior god.  But the story doesn’t end here.  Why would mark have contradicted his own thesis merely because it was including something historical?  Certainly, lots of stuff was left on the cutting floor. 

Let’s suppose for a moment that Mark’s interpretation of the cross is in fact more like Luke’s moral influence cross than is generally thought.  After all, the soldier looking up at the cross in Mark and Luke were transformed, in Mark by Jesus’ obedience to God unto death of Jesus despite Jesus’ fears, and in Luke the forgiveness of Jesus spoke to his innocence.  If this is the case in Mark, then the story of the Rich Man fits in perfectly with moral influence, Jesus’ stricter application of the law opening the eyes of the rich man as to how short he has fallen in his attempt at righteousness.  In this way, it may not be that the story of the Rich Man means we have an historical core in Mark because maybe Ehrman’s interpretation of the cross in Luke is right, but his interpretation of the cross in Mark is wrong?  An interesting question to keep in mind: that the New Testament is not arguing for super Yom Kippur blood magic sacrifice.  Regarding Luke, Ehrman comments that:

  • And it is striking to note that the verses, as familiar as they are, do not represent Luke’s own understanding of the death of Jesus.  For it is a striking feature of Luke’s portrayal of Jesus death — this may sound strange at first — that he never, anywhere else, indicates that the death itself is what brings salvation from sin.  Nowhere in Luke’s entire two volume work (Luke and Acts), is Jesus’ death said to be “for you.”  And in fact, on the two occasions in which Luke’s source Mark indicates that it was by Jesus’ death that salvation came (Mark 10:4515:39), Luke changed the wording of the text (or eliminated it).  Luke, in other words, has a different understanding of the way Jesus death leads to salvation from Mark (and from Paul, and other early Christian writers).
  • It is easy to see Luke’s own distinctive view by considering what he has to say in the book of Acts, where the apostles give a number of speeches in order to convert others to the faith.  What is striking is that in none of these instances (look, e.g., in chapters 3, 4, 13), do the apostles indicate that Jesus’ death brings atonement for sins.  It is not that Jesus’ death is unimportant.  It’s extremely important for Luke.  But not as an atonement.  Instead, Jesus death is what makes people realize their guilt before God (since he died even though he was innocent).  Once people recognize their guilt, they turn to God in repentance, and then he forgives their sins.
  • Jesus’ death for Luke, in other words, drives people to repentance, and it is this repentance that brings salvation (2017).

And in fact, Mark seems to make fun of the Jewish atonement ritual with the satire of the pardoned evil Barabbas.

One of the most remarkable passages in Mark is the desperate Gethsemane prayer, because terrified Jesus identifies as God’s obedient servant, but doesn’t think he actually needs to die for God’s will to be done:

  • 34And he said to them, “I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and keep awake.” 35And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him. 36He said, “Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want.”

And in fact, Hebrews seems to tell us the Gethsemane prayer is answered, just not the way Jesus thinks.


We are asking after the question of the Philosophy of History and how we are to unhide and make conspicuous hidden phenomena.  This also speaks to philosophy, one of its biggest questions being the discussion of Being.  What is Being?  It seems to mean everything and nothing, the broadest and most empty concept.  How do we approach it, then?  We read from poet Robert Browning:

  • The year’s at the spring
    And day’s at the morn;
    Morning’s at seven;
    The hill-side’s dew-pearled;
    The lark’s on the wing;
    The snail’s on the thorn:
    God’s in his heaven—
    All’s right with the world!
  • Pippa Passes— from Act I: Morning by Robert Browning

Similarly we find this “God’s in his heaven and all’s right with the world” in Anne of Green Gables:

  • Anne sat long at her window that night companioned by a glad content. The wind purred softly in the cherry boughs, and the mint breaths came up to her. The stars twinkled over the pointed firs in the hollow and Diana’s light gleamed through the old gap.
  • Anne’s horizons had closed in since the night she had sat there after coming home from Queen’s; but if the path set before her feet was to be narrow she knew that flowers of quiet happiness would bloom along it. The joy of sincere work and worthy aspiration and congenial friendship were to be hers; nothing could rob her of her birthright of fancy or her ideal world of dreams. And there was always the bend in the road!
  • ”’God’s in his heaven, all’s right with the world,’” whispered Anne softly. softly.
  • Anne of Green Gables
  • by Lucy Maud Montgomery

We’ve all had times in our lives where everything falls into place, like in puppy love, or a successful job interview, or a simple walk in the harmony and bliss of nature. This “God” quote is not about God but about Being. Chandigarh Nirupama Dutt comments:

  • One of the most quoted lines from Robert Browning’s poem Pippa Passes is ‘God’s in his Heaven/All’s right with the world!’ Such is the profundity of the line that one could by mistake assign it to some biblical source. The poem, of course, is dedicated to the harmony and bliss of nature.

It is like the person and world are two vibrating crystals that vibrate in harmony together, which is usually hidden but become conspicuous from time to time, for better or worse, such as:

  • Dickens  writes “I was sensible of a mist of love and beauty about Dora, but of nothing else … it was all Dora to me. The sun shone Dora, and the birds sang Dora. The south wind blew Dora, and the wild flowers in the hedges were all Doras, to a bud.  (Dickens, David Copperfield 2015, ch 33, Blissful).” 

This un-covers for us the Being of everyday life. To use Anaximander’s language things are not in place but are out of joint, which needs to be overcome if there is to be in the warmth and being-at-home of the hearth fire, which the Greeks called parestios (para Hestia).

Kenneth Maly, in his essay Reading and Thinking, translates Heidegger’s German translating Anaximander as:

  • The place from out of which emergence comes is, for everything that emerges, also the place of disappearance into this (as into the same)–in accordance with exigence (brook); for they let enjoining and thereby also reck belong to each other (in the getting over) of disjoining, responding to the directive of time’s coming into its own.

So, things are normally out of joint, but then something happens whereby everything falls into place and you and the world vibrate in agreement.  Aristotle called philosophical life deathlessness not because philosophers lived forever (the Greeks thought everyone existed forever as a restless shade), but because the thinker nursed off eternal knowledge like the forever in the bloom of youth ambrosia eating gods.

Regarding the unity of Being and thought, it is normally hidden but we can uncover it. Suppose you were an alien from another planet who came to earth long ago and met the mathematician Pythagoras drawing shapes in the dirt.  “Notice all the 3-sided figures with straight sides,” he said.  “These are called triangles.”  You walk back to your ship and notice all the triangles on it.  The next day, Pythagoras re-veals or un-hides for you the different kinds of triangles: right, equilateral, isosceles, scalene.  The more we learn about triangles, the more the triangles we encounter are able to stand forth as what they truly are.  Similarly, the more we study art history, the more the genius of a Da Vinci work is able to stand forth.  One of the sayings of Parmenides reads: to gar auto noein estin te kai einai. ‘That, namely [the] same, is both becoming-aware (that is, thinking) and Being.’

I say these things because we often discount the ancients as primitives, and so interpret them with kid gloves to be  saying something archaic and silly.  With the pre-Socratics we need to at least entertain the possibility that there is real philosophical content there.  Similarly, instead of just dismissing the first Christians as ancient superstition, we can also ask whether there is philosophical content there too. 

Hopefully that provides some background and context.  Next, I will dive into Prof Ehrman’s lectures on Paul and Jesus.

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