Ehrman Slipping

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by Neil Godfrey

Bart Ehrman puts up a pay wall barrier to his blog posts so I have not seen his full article but the teaser he makes public — Why Paul Persecuted the Christians — does not encourage me to want to see more.

Questions I would suggest be posed to him by those who are privileged financially to be able to donate to a charity of Bart’s choosing (or privileged enough to donate over and above what they already donate elsewhere) as well as interested enough:

  1. Does he address the arguments and evidence advanced by Candida Moss in The Myth of Persecution: How Early Christians Invented a Story of Martyrdom?
  2. Why does he appear to cite the Dead Sea Scrolls as if they are evidence for what Paul (or Jews generally) believed in the Second Temple era? Does Ehrman consider the wealth of evidence advanced by scholars (e.g. Hengel, Boyarin, Novenson….) that Jews of this period did indeed accept as par for the course quite different notions of a messiah than we find in the DSS — including the notion of a suffering and/or dying messiah? Such an idea was hardly cause for Jews of the day to go out and start stoning or beating one another.
  3. Have the arguments advanced quite some time ago by Morton Smith in relation to the question of Paul persecuting the church been addressed and refuted? See
    • “What is Implied by the Variety of Messianic Figures?” Journal of Biblical Literature, Vol. 78, No. 1 (Mar., 1959), pp. 66-72
    • “The Reason for the Persecution of Paul and the Obscurity of Acts” (1967) in Ubach, E.E., Werblowsky, R.J. Zwi, Wirszubski, C. (eds.), Studies in Mysticism and Religion Presented to Gershom G. Scholem on his Seventieth Birthday, pp. 261-268
      • Or more simply go to Was Paul Really Persecuted for Preaching a Crucified Christ? where I tease out the relevant points in those articles. Hint: The offence Paul speaks about — and the one that presumably upset him before he converted — is not the message of a crucified Christ but the implication that that event meant the end of the law for salvation.
  4. Does Ehrman factor in the transmission history of the documents he relies upon as sources when addressing the question of whether or not Paul persecuted the church, and if so, what did such persecution mean, exactly?
    • If we leave aside Acts (especially given the problems surrounding establishing an early date for it that is based upon sound historical methods) then we have to ask why for the Marcionite followers of Paul there was no awareness of Paul as a persecutor in the sense that orthodoxy has since given us.
    • We also have to explain other images of Paul (as in Acts of Paul and Thecla) that appear ignorant of this record.

It is a shame to see a scholar with a reputation for secular critical nous appear to limit his analysis (analysis that is presumably shared without charge, or paid for ultimately by taxpayers, in the professional journals, yet that he only gives to the affluent — who are presumably also taxpayers — if they donate again to his own preferred charities) to the narrow range of sources and assumptions that are approved by the faith-dominated majority of his field.




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Neil Godfrey

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  • 2016-06-14 08:23:51 GMT+0000 - 08:23 | Permalink

    It has always fascinated me why, for all the credence Paul is given, and especially as a persecutor of Christians, there is no mention of him in Jewish or secular writings of the time.
    It is as if he was simply writing in a vacuum.

    • Matt Cavanaugh
      2016-06-14 18:13:51 GMT+0000 - 18:13 | Permalink

      You won’t find a Paul persecuting Christians per se. But you will find a Saul persecuting “innovating” Jews.

  • j f d'auria
    2016-06-14 08:46:33 GMT+0000 - 08:46 | Permalink

    a lot of referenced sources to read up on ….thnx

  • lreadl
    2016-06-14 12:36:48 GMT+0000 - 12:36 | Permalink

    I do subscribe to his blog. Here is the whole post:

    Why Paul Persecuted the Christians

    I have been side-tracked by other things, but now can get back to the thread I started to spin, or rather the tapestry I started to weave. The ultimate question I’m puzzling over is how Christianity became the dominant religion in the empire, and my point at this stage is that before Christianity began to thrive, it was persecuted. The persecutions go all the way back. Our first Christian author is Paul, who must have converted to be a follower of Jesus just three years or so after Jesus’ death. Paul tells us explicitly that before becoming a follower of Jesus he was a persecutor of the church. And why was he persecuting it? He doesn’t say directly, buy my sense is that it was for a very basic reason. He despised their message. Specifically he could not abide what Christians were saying about Jesus. Why was that a problem? Because they insisted he was God’s messiah.

    In my previous post I indicated something of one of the common views of what the messiah was to be. Here I summarize that view for you briefly, before pointing out a couple of other live options in first-century Judaism, and then explaining why the Christian view would have been so insulting to Paul.


    We now know from the Dead Sea Scrolls a range of expectations of what the messiah would be like. The term “messiah” itself literally means “anointed one” and originally referred to the king of Israel, who was anointed with oil during his coronation ceremony in order to show that he was the one God had chosen to lead his people. In the first century, Jews did not have a king; they were ruled by a foreign power, Rome, and many Jews considered this to be an awful and untenable situation of oppression. They were anticipating that God would once again raise up a Jewish king to overthrow the enemy and reestablish a sovereign state in Israel. This would be God’s powerful and exalted anointed one, the messiah.

    Other Jews maintained that the future savior of the Jews would be more cosmic in character, a kind of heavenly figure who came on the clouds of heaven in judgment on the evil kingdoms of this earth to establish God’s own kingdom instead, to be ruled by himself or by someone he appointed as God’s celestial messiah.

    Others thought that the future ruler of the coming kingdom of God would be a powerful priest empowered by God to interpret the law correctly and forcefully as he guided the people of Israel in the ways of God apart from the oppressive policies of an alien force.

    Despite their differences, all these expectations of the coming messiah had one thing in common. He was to be a figure of grandeur and power who would overthrow the enemies of Israel with a show of force and rule the people of God with a powerful presence as a sovereign state in the Promised Land.

    And who was Jesus? He was a crucified criminal. An insignificant and relatively unknown apocalyptic preacher from a rural part of the northern hinterlands, who made a solitary pilgrimage to Jerusalem with a handful of followers, who ended up on the wrong side of the law and was unceremoniously tried, convicted and tortured to death on criminal charges. That’s the messiah? That’s just the opposite of the messiah.

    There are good reasons for thinking that some of Jesus’ followers (it is impossible to say how many there were, but given the demographics of rural Galilee we’re not talking thousands, or even hundreds) thought that maybe he would be the messiah. Those hopes were forcefully and convincingly dashed by his execution. But for reasons we do not need to explore here, some of them came to think that after his death a great miracle had occurred and God had brought Jesus back to life and exalted him up to heaven. This belief reconfirmed the earlier expectation: Jesus is the one favored of God! He is the anointed one! He is the messiah!

    This reconfirmation of a hope that had been forcefully disconfirmed compelled these earliest followers of Jesus to make sense of it all through their ultimate source of all religious truth, the sacred scriptural traditions. They found passages that spoke of someone (a righteous person or the nation of Israel as a whole) suffering, but then being vindicated by God. These included passages such as Isaiah 53 quoted above. These followers of Jesus claimed these passages actually referred to the future messiah. They were predictions of Jesus.

    This was for them “good news.” Jesus was the messiah, but not one anyone expected. By raising him from the dead, God showed that Jesus’ death had brought about a much greater salvation than anyone had anticipated. Jesus came to save God’s people not from their oppression by a foreign power, but to save them for eternal life. This is what the earliest Christians must have proclaimed.

    And for the zealous Pharisee Paul, it was utter nonsense. It was worse than nonsense. It was a horrific and dangerous blasphemy against God, his scriptures, and the law itself. This scandalous preaching had to be stopped. And Paul did his best to stop it.

    • Neil Godfrey
      2016-06-14 19:46:13 GMT+0000 - 19:46 | Permalink

      And who was Jesus? He was a crucified criminal. An insignificant and relatively unknown apocalyptic preacher from a rural part of the northern hinterlands, who made a solitary pilgrimage to Jerusalem with a handful of followers, who ended up on the wrong side of the law and was unceremoniously tried, convicted and tortured to death on criminal charges. That’s the messiah? That’s just the opposite of the messiah.

      This is a mindless repeat of the most disingenuous apologetics. It’s like asking who was Barak Obama and answering, “A Hawaiian from a broken family who studied in Indonesia.” The message that was the target of persecution according to Acts was not that Jesus was a nobody but that he had indeed conquered the evil powers that kept us in slavery and freed us all if we believe. And this exaltation demonstrated the great and incomprehensible power of God.

      If Paul persecuted Christians because they were worshiping a nobody then we would definitely expect to find some hint of this in his letters: Surely we could expect him to defend his faith along the same lines against others who were apparently persecuting him for similar reasons — that is, we would expect Paul to argue against the reasoning that led him to persecute the church. We would expect Paul to be showing other persecutors just why that Jesus really was NOT a nobody, how he performed great miracles, confounded the Pharisees, met his death so nobly according to the fulfilment of scriptures that he would spell out in detail. And above all, give what he believed were the verifiable details (not just a vague sweeping statement) of witnesses to his resurrection.

      Thanks for the complete post.

      • lreadl
        2016-06-16 21:03:38 GMT+0000 - 21:03 | Permalink

        Glad to help. Yeah, the movie that runs in Bart’s head on this is confused and suffused with the telltale remnants of his evangelical education. Same goes for his defense of a historical Jesus. But he’s way too heavily invested to see things any other way, I think.

    • redhat101
      2016-06-15 03:52:24 GMT+0000 - 03:52 | Permalink

      Yeah figure soo minor and insignificant that whole band of high priests and even the prefect himself orchestrated his execution that too on Passover…seriously he charge for reading such garbled apologia lol also its kinda typical for scholars to start heavily downsizing the event when it become apparent that they are dealing with fiction consider this hilariously bad argument somebody put for the defense of that murder of innocents narrative found in Matthew…

      >Brown and others argue that, based on Bethlehem’s estimated population of 1,000 at the time, the largest number of infants that could have been killed would have been about twenty that’s why nobody recorded that incident.

    • Steven Carr
      2016-06-15 05:32:40 GMT+0000 - 05:32 | Permalink

      ‘ But for reasons we do not need to explore here, some of them came to think that after his death a great miracle had occurred and God had brought Jesus back to life and exalted him up to heaven. This belief reconfirmed the earlier expectation: Jesus is the one favored of God! He is the anointed one! He is the messiah!’

      Surely a resurrected person is the very opposite of a Messiah.

      If Jesus before the resurrection was the very opposite of a Messiah, what was it about a resurrection that made him a Jewish Messiah?

      Does Ehrman know what a Jewish Messiah is?

  • vinnyjh
    2016-06-14 14:57:06 GMT+0000 - 14:57 | Permalink

    Can we take Paul’s claim that he persecuted Christians at face value?

    I would say no. Christians love to portray themselves as wretched God-haters prior to their conversions, e.g., Josh McDowell, Lee Strobel, Ergun Caner. The worse their enmity was, the more impressive their conversion is. How can we ignore the possibility that Paul recognized the effectiveness of this shtick and exaggerated his earlier opposition to Christianity?

    If Paul did actually persecute early Christians, can we assume that it had anything to do with what they actually believed?

    Again I would say no. There are too many examples where persecutions of religious or ethnic minorities were founded on complete falsehoods. The peasants who carried out the pogroms were stirred up by claims that the Jews practiced ritual infanticide. The Romans who persecuted the early Christians accused them of incest and cannibalism. While Paul might have been genuinely offended by what his victims actually believed, how can I eliminate the possibility that his attacks were premised on a complete misunderstanding of their beliefs?

    Religious persecutions are a convenient way for those in power to distract the poor and disenfranchised from the true cause of their misery. If the Roman peasants were suffering due to a food shortage, what could be handier than scapegoating the Christians who refused to make the sacrifices necessary to keep the gods happy?

    In first century Palestine, there was a Jewish elite that prospered under Roman rule while the majority of the population suffered. The latter were fodder for messianic movements while the former had every motivation to suppress them. That the elite would use lies to stir up zealous Pharisees like Paul to attack the various messianic sects seems quite plausible to me.

    I can also see no reason to think that Paul would have gained an accurate picture of his victims while carrying out his persecutions. Under torture or threat of torture, Paul’s victims would have said anything they thought Paul wanted to hear. Informants would have sold him lies.

    At some point, Paul had some experience that he viewed as a revelation from God, which convinced him that he had been attacking the truth. However, since I have no reason to think that he had an accurate understanding of his victims’ beliefs or practices, the truth that Paul began proclaiming may have had little to do with the actual beliefs and practices of any specific persons or groups.

    • Matt Cavanaugh
      2016-06-14 18:01:45 GMT+0000 - 18:01 | Permalink

      Paul’s antagonism with the “Pillars” and their tenets runs throughout the Pauline Epistles. It shows up, in garbled form, in Acts, and again (vs. Peter) in the Pseudo-Clementines. Fragments of Hegesippus and Hippolytus hint strongly at Paul being involved in the persecution of James in the 40’s and perhaps also at his death in 62. If Paul can be equated with Josephus’ ‘Saulus’, the link is even stronger.

      There is no need for Paul to first hate Christianity, then embrace it: Paul’s Christianity was never the same as that of the Jerusalem church, rather its antithesis from the start.

      • Greg G.
        2016-06-15 12:14:02 GMT+0000 - 12:14 | Permalink

        Since Luke used Josephus a lot, especially in Acts, might he have taken that Saulus as Saul/Paul in order to make another parallel with Simon/Cephas/Peter?

        I recall reading of that Saulus in Josephus but never made the connection. I will go read it again with Paul in mind.

        Thank you for this food for thought.

  • Matt Cavanaugh
    2016-06-14 17:43:20 GMT+0000 - 17:43 | Permalink

    Ehrman can only imagine that a mythical Christ was formulated after the appearance of a failed, real-life messianic aspirant. He, of course, dismisses out-of-hand the possibility of real-life messianic aspirants attempting to embody a pre-existing concept of a suffering messiah.

    Ehrman mentions the DSS in passing. If he, as a putative serious scholar, wishes to tackle the question of Paul’s persecution of the early Christians, he needs to address — if only to dispute — Robert Eisenman’s exhaustive* case for Paul being an Herodian agent who infiltrated the Jamesian/Qumran sect of ebonites/zealots (the first ‘Jewish-Christians’), then inverted their insurrectionist message into the benign, hellenist christianity palatable to the Herodians and their Roman overlords.

    * And if you’ve read any Eisenman, you know what I mean by ‘exhaustive’!

    • Zbykow
      2016-06-14 18:46:58 GMT+0000 - 18:46 | Permalink

      “Ehrman can only imagine that a mythical Christ was formulated after the appearance of a failed, real-life messianic aspirant.”

      But he wrote:
      “Other Jews maintained that the future savior of the Jews would be more cosmic in character, a kind of heavenly figure…”

  • Steven Carr
    2016-06-15 05:34:52 GMT+0000 - 05:34 | Permalink

    Paul gives no hint of persecutions happening while Jesus was alive.

    Or of Jesus being persecuted.

    Indeed, he praises the Romans as agents of God who hold no terror for the innocent.

    • Neil Godfrey
      2016-06-15 20:34:45 GMT+0000 - 20:34 | Permalink

      Yes and no. I was recently reminded that Romans 13:1-7 is quite possibly an interpolation: List of scholars believing Paul’s letters were interpolated:

      Romans 13:1-7, Pallis (1920); Loisy (1922: 104, 128; 1935: 30-31; 1936: 287); Windisch (1931); cf. Barnikol (1931b); Eggenberger (1945); Barnes (1947: 302, possibly); Kallas (1964-65); Munro (1983: 56f., 65-67); Sahlin (1953); Bultmann (1947).

      • Greg G.
        2016-06-17 14:56:04 GMT+0000 - 14:56 | Permalink

        I think Romans 13:1-7 is the most likely “inspiration” for Mark 12:15-17 (“Render unto Caesar…”). If so, the interpolation would have to be early or the gospels late.

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