(Part 6) The Philosophy of History: Professor Bart Ehrman’s New Course Comparing and Contrasting The Apostle Paul With The Historical Jesus


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

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

(Part 3) The Philosophy of History: Professor Bart Ehrman’s New Course Comparing and Contrasting The Apostle Paul With The Historical Jesus

(Part 4) The Philosophy of History: Professor Bart Ehrman’s New Course Comparing and Contrasting The Apostle Paul With The Historical Jesus

(Part 5) The Philosophy of History: Professor Bart Ehrman’s New Course Comparing and Contrasting The Apostle Paul With The Historical Jesus


(i) Big Ideas/Takeaways from Bart’s first lecture on Paul

  • Paul was a fervent opponent of Christ’s followers who converted to become an avid follower. This conversion experience played a fundamental role for Paul’s understanding who Jesus really was. No longer did he consider him a crucified criminal wrongly identified as the messiah. He was instead the Christ, chosen by God to bring about salvation.  But even more than that: Paul came to believe that before becoming human, Christ was a heavenly being who came to earth in order to die for the sins of others. God rewarded him by raising him from the dead and exalting back to heaven, where he was transformed into an even more glorious being. God elevated Jesus to his own level, giving him his own name, making him his divine equal.  This raises an obvious key question: is this what Jesus thought about himself? (Bart Ehrman)

Paul like Jesus was apocalyptic and thought God was going to intervene in history soon and destroy his enemies and set up paradise on earth.  The first Christians were proclaiming Jesus the Messiah.  There are various Jewish understandings of the Messiah, but all envisioned a future ruler who would defeat God’s enemies and set up God’s kingdom.  Jesus did the opposite, getting killed by God’s enemies.  No where in the Hebrew bible, including Isaiah 53, is it said the Messiah is to suffer and die.  Isaiah 53 does not refer to the coming Messiah, but rather one who had already suffered in Isaiah’s own day. 

Paul thought the end was imminent, and that he saw Jesus raised from the dead.  This would have meant the end time resurrection had begun with Jesus as the first fruits of the end time harvest of souls.  Jesus would return in Paul’s lifetime as Judge of the earth – first God raises the Messiah, then everyone else.  The resurrection showed God favored Jesus, and so must have planned the death, and so Paul came to think Jesus’s death was part of God’s plan for salvation.  One popular reason for sacrifice was atonement for sins, so Jesus was a perfect sacrifice.  A person is made right with God through belief in the death and resurrection of his Messiah – in this way you accept the vicarious atoning sacrifice.   Paul’s own unique contribution is that if salvation came through accepting the atoning sacrifice, it didn’t come through following the Jewish law.  Jews are thus not made righteous by staying in the covenant by keeping the law, but through belief in the sacrifice of Jesus, and so gentiles too needn’t become Jews to be Christians.  Jews don’t need to stop following the law, but gentiles certainly don’t need to follow it. 

In the Philippian Christ Poem/Hymn Paul seems to have an incarnation theology where Christ was originally a divine being who came to earth.  By contrast, Jesus’s earliest followers considered him a human who would be made Messiah.  Paul thought Christ was a divine being in heaven who gave it up for the sake of other people.  Paul thus concludes we should not be selfish but selfless like Christ was.  Because of Christ’s selflessness, he was given the title Lord and was exalted even higher than he previously was so all will bow before him – a reference to Isaiah meaning Jesus had been exalted to the level of God the Father / equal with God but not identical to God.  But was this Jesus’s view of himself?

(ii) Analysis/Reflection

The law rejuvenates/converts the soul (psalm 19:7) and helps to point our hidden faults (psalm 19:12).  And who accepted Jesus at the cross? Not a Jew, but a pagan soldier, because the death is not Jewish vicarious atoning but Socratic moral influence.  And it was soldier recognizing soldier, Jesus dying for his ultimate commanding officer and in respect and care for his enemies. 

Paul points out the law makes sin sinful beyond measure, so something bad becomes something evil if there is a law one needs to transgress:

  • 13 Did what is good, then, bring death to me? By no means! It was sin that was working death in me through what is good, in order that it might be shown to be sin, so that through the commandment sin might become sinful beyond measure. (Romans 7:13)

As Ehrman pointed out in previous lectures, there is ambiguity in interpreting the Jewish law, eg Jesus with two most important laws as a clue for interpreting the rest, eg vs pharisees on not working on the sabbath.  Jesus said he did not come to abolish the law but fulfill it, eg make it stricter.  Jesus is the personification of the law: love of god (terrified obedience in Gethsemane) and neighbor (love of enemy on the cross).  The way the world unjustly turned on and abandoned righteous Jesus makes conspicuous the hidden sinfulness of the world and so is a catalyst for repentance.   There is going to be a Yom Kippur pure goat/scapegoat interpretation that is unjust and a Socratic moral influence interpretation that is the real meaning of the cross.

The unjust Barabbas satire raises the question as are we to interpret the cross as a super blood magic Yom Kippur atonement sacrifice or a Socratic moral influence sacrifice?  And in this we see the divide between conservative readings and progressive/liberal readings of the cross, Ehrman siding with the conservatives, though as I say both readings are there due to the ambiguity of the law and you have to tease out what both mean. 

Ehrman places Jesus in the tradition of the prophets Amos and Isaiah, so presumably what is aimed at is right behavior, not religious ritual like sacrifices.  The release of Barabbas is a ridiculous miscarriage of Justice, and so we have the negative critique of the Yom Kippur pure goat and scapegoat.  The concept itself is silly, for how does executing an innocent child for the crimes of a hardened felon serve Justice?  However, there seems to be a positive Yom Kippur content to be recovered, as some scholars of Judaism think, because the brutal death of the scapegoat seems to fly in the face of a more humane practice of animal sacrifice in Judaism, and so this excess of evil may be present to prompt people to consider the terrible consequences of their sin.

Let’s look at an example.  One of the interesting things Ehrman does to deal with vicarious atonement problem with Luke is Luke obviously not arguing for penal substitution, so Ehrman has to eliminate apparent vicarious atonement passages as scribal insertions.  This is awkward because he has to argue scribes were changing the text, but not enough to make penal substitution the more likely reading: Ehrman comments:

  • First I would say that yes, these are key passages in the discussion.  Another is Mark 15:37-39, where Jesus dies and the curtain in the Temple is immediately ripped in half.  This curtain is to be understood as separating God from humanity – he was believed to dwell in the Holy of Holies behind the curtain, and only the high priest could go into his presence in that room, and that only once a year on the Day of Atonement to make a sacrifice for the people’s sins.  Now, with the death of Jesus, in Mark, the curtain is destroyed, and people do have access to God.  Luke changes the scene significantly: for him the curtain was ripped, but it was *before* Jesus died.  Now it doesn’t show that Jesus’ death brings access to God.  It is a symbol of God’s destruction of the temple because of what the Jewish people have done to Jesus.  (As Luke says “the hour of darkness has come”)
  • So here’s the deal so far.   Luke omitted Mark 10:45, that Jesus’ death was a ransom for many.  Why’d he do that?  He also changed the ripping of the curtain.  Why’d he do that?   And as significantly, he also omitted Mark 14:24, that Jesus blood was poured out for many?  Why’d he do that?  Or *did* he do that?
  • The questioner is pointing out that the verse (Jesus’ blood is “poured out for many”) *is* found in Luke 22:20.  BUT, here’s the big deal: it appears that Luke did not originally have the verse.  It was added by later scribes.  Here is my discussion of the passage in my book Misquoting Jesus (I have a much longer and detailed discussion in my book The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture).
  • For proto-orthodox Christians, it was important to emphasize that Christ was a real man of flesh and blood because it was precisely the sacrifice of his flesh and the shedding of his blood that brought salvation – not in appearance but in reality.  Another textual variant in Luke’s account of Jesus’ passion emphasizes precisely this reality.  It occurs during the account of Jesus’ last supper with his disciples.  In one of our oldest Greek manuscripts, along with several Latin witnesses, we are told the following:
  • And taking a cup, giving thanks, he said, “Take this and divide it among yourselves, for I say to you that I will not drink from the fruit of the vine from now on, until the kingdom of God comes.”  And taking bread, giving thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body.  But behold, the hand of the one who betrays me is with me at the table” (Luke 22:17-19).
  • In most of our manuscripts, however, there is an addition to the text, an addition that will sound familiar to many readers of the English Bible, since it has made its way into most modern translations.  Here, after Jesus says “This is my body,” he continues with the words “‘which has been given for you; do this in remembrance of me’; And the cup likewise after supper, saying ‘this cup is the new covenant in my blood which is poured for you.’”
  • These are the familiar words of the “institution” of the Lord’s Supper, known in a very similar form also from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians (1 Cor. 11:23-25).  Despite the fact they are familiar, there are good reasons for thinking that these verses were not originally in Luke’s Gospel, but were added in order to stress that it was precisely Jesus’ broken body and shed blood that brought salvation “for you.”  For one thing, it is hard to explain why a scribe would have omitted the verses if they were original to Luke (there is no homoeoteleuton, for example, that would explain an omission), especially since they make such clear and smooth sense when they are added.  In fact, when the verses are taken away, doesn’t the text sound a bit truncated?  Precisely the unfamiliarity of the truncated version (without the verses) may have been what led scribes to add the verses.
  • 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 10:45; 15:39), 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.  But not according to these disputed verses which are missing from some of our early witnesses: here Jesus’ death is portrayed as an atonement “for you.”

The gospel writers seem to be playing with a Yom Kippur atonement understanding and a Socratic Moral influence death interpretation.  What Ehrman misses here is that the death is necessary in either case of vicarious atonement or Moral Influence.  When Socrates dies, giving a prayer of thanksgiving for the poison that cures him of his body and society by bringing before their eyes that they killed noble Socrates for silly reasons, the argument works because Socrates dies, and in that way the people can have their hidden vileness be made conspicuous.

Did the tearing of the veil indicate Christ’s vicarious atonement reconciling man with God.  This seems unlikely given the Greek imagery, and so more likely means the anger of God – not about reconciling God with man, but no animal sacrifice could make up for what the world did to God’s specially chosen beloved (agapetos) messiah. Price comments:

  • Whence did Mark derive the tearing asunder of the Temple veil, from top to bottom (Mark 15:38)? Perhaps from the death of Hector in the Iliad (MacDonald, pp. 144-145). Hector dies forsaken by Zeus. The women of Troy watched from afar off (as the Galilean women do in Mark 15:40), and the whole of Troy mourned as if their city had already been destroyed “from top to bottom,” just as the ripping of the veil seems to be a portent of Jerusalem’s eventual doom.

To make the vicarious atonement temple veil argument you have to suppose the curtain tearing meant two completely unrelated things in Mark and Luke.

For My Scriptures Study Index SEE