Sunday, May 6, 2012

Bart Ehrman on the Historical Jesus

Church historian Bart Ehrman has long been one of my favorite authors on religion. Via Andrew Sullivan, this is from a new interview with him:
What can we say, then, from a historian’s point of view, about the historical Jesus? What was he like?

What I argue in the book is that the majority of scholars over the last century or so in Europe and the U.S. have basically been right. Jesus is best understood as a Jewish apocalyptic prophet. By which I mean, Jesus thought that this world was controlled by forces of evil and that’s why there’s so much pain and misery and suffering. But God, as such a prophet would argue, will soon intervene and overthrow the forces of evil and bring in a good kingdom where there will be no more pain, misery, or suffering. This Kingdom of God will take over.

Jesus thought this would happen within his own generation, and so he told his disciples that they would not die before they saw the Kingdom of God come into power.

Do you think Jesus would even recognize these modern versions we have of him?

No. I don’t think there’s a church in North America anywhere that Jesus could go into and recognize himself. I don’t think Jesus wanted to start a new religion. Jesus was Jewish and he believed in the Jewish God; he accepted the Jewish law; he practiced Jewish customs; and he gathered Jewish disciples and gave them his Jewish interpretation of the Jewish scriptures.

I think Jesus may have had a distinct understanding of Judaism and may have wanted to reform Judaism, but he had no conception at all of the start of a new religion—let alone a religion that was based on his death and resurrection. . . .

I think Jesus thought that God was going to send a cosmic judge of the earth to overthrow these forces of evil and set up a kingdom. I do think that Jesus thought that he, himself, would be made the king of that kingdom. In other words, he thought he was the future Messiah. He probably taught this to his closest disciples and when they came to think that he was brought back to life they naturally redefined what it meant to be a Messiah—defining it as somebody who had died and been raised from the dead.

They knew Jesus had been crucified and they believed he was the Messiah, so they concluded that the Messiah had to be crucified.

What I point out in the book is that Christians did not invent Jesus; what they invented was the idea of a suffering Messiah. This is a view that is not found among Jews prior to Christianity.

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