NPR's Early Easter Guest: Disciples Didn't Believe Jesus Was God; Hallucinated Resurrection

NPR's Terry Gross anticipated the Christian holy day of Easter on Monday's Fresh Air by boosting "popular" author Bart Ehrman's latest book, where the agnostic scholar asserted that "Jesus himself didn't call himself God and didn't consider himself God, and that none of his disciples had any inkling at all that he was God." During the segment, Gross wondered if "Christians made the claim that Jesus is God in order...to grow from being a small cult."

Ehrman also claimed, "I don't think Jesus was given a decent burial – that he was probably thrown into a common grave of some kind," and that the early disciples of Jesus probably hallucinated his resurrection:

BART EHRMAN, AUTHOR, "HOW JESUS BECAME GOD: THE EXALTATION OF A JEWISH PREACHER FROM GALILEE": We know a lot about visions from modern research. It turns out that about one out of eight people among us has had some kind of visionary experience in which we've seen something that wasn't really there and were convinced that in fact it was there. That's a vision....People who are Christian will say the reason the disciples had visions of Jesus after his death is because he was raised from the dead, and he appeared to them. And so, they would call these visions appearances of Jesus. Non-Christians would look at the same information and say the disciples had hallucinations. And so, I got interested in this question of hallucinations...and it turns out that hallucinations are very common among people still today. And two of the most common kinds of hallucinations are of deceased loved ones and of revered religious figures....

In terms of revered religious figures, we have all sorts of documented reports of the Blessed Virgin Mary appearing to hundreds of people at one time – thousands of people at one time. And so, in my chapter, I deal with these incidents of visions that we know about from the modern people and from history. And then, I point out that a historian, as a historian, can certainly say that some of Jesus' followers had visions of him and that since they had visions of him, they thought that he was no longer dead. And since they were the kinds of Jews who thought that afterlife was lived in the body, that it wasn't that your spirit lived on after your body died, but that the afterlife was a bodily existence – if they thought Jesus was alive again, they necessarily thought that he was alive again in his body. And this is then what begins the belief in Jesus' bodily resurrection.

Moments into the interview, the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill professor contended that "if Jesus had not been declared God by his followers, his followers would have remained a sect within Judaism – a small Jewish sect – and if that was the case, it would not have attracted a large number of Gentiles. If they hadn't attracted a large number of Gentiles, there wouldn't have been the steady rate of conversion over the first three centuries to Christianity – it would've been a small Jewish sect."

Gross followed up with her "small cult" question. Ehrman replied, in part, that "the earliest Christians thought that Jesus had been taken up into heaven, and then, made a divine being, and that he was coming back, and they thought it was going to happen very soon. So, they had no idea that they were going to revolutionize Western civilization." The NPR host continued by prompting her guest to further flesh out his hypothesis that Jesus was "made a divine being:"

GROSS: So, did Jesus' earliest followers consider him to be God?

EHRMAN: Well, what I argue in the book is that during his lifetime, Jesus himself didn't call himself God and didn't consider himself God, and that none of his disciples had any inkling at all that he was God. The way it works is that you do find Jesus calling himself God in the Gospel of John, our last Gospel. Jesus says things like: 'before Abraham was, I am,' and 'I and the Father are one, and if you've seen me, you've see the Father.' These are all statements that you find only in the Gospel of John, and that's striking because we have earlier Gospels, and we have the writings of Paul, and in none of them is there any indication that Jesus said such things about him. I think it's completely implausible that Matthew, Mark, and Luke would not mention that Jesus called himself God if that's what he was declaring about himself. That would be a rather important point to make.

So this is not an unusual view among scholars. It's simply the view that the Gospel of John is providing a theological understand of Jesus that is not what was historically accurate.

So, in order to reach his conclusion, Ehrman had to downplay the legitimacy of the Gospel of John, and play up the synoptic Gospels as somehow "more authentic."

During the lead-up to the his "hallucination" thesis, the agnostic author posited that Jesus was probably left on the cross for his body to desecrated, instead of Pontius Pilate allowing it to be taken down:

EHRMAN: ...I actually changed my views about this question about whether there was an empty tomb three days after Jesus' death, and the reason I changed my mind about it is because I started to look into what we know about Roman practices of crucifixion. Now, it's interesting that we never have any literary descriptions in any writing at all. These no description of how exactly crucifixion was performed. But there are references in ancient Greek and Latin texts that refer to people who have been crucified, and what is striking is that in virtually every instance, we're told that the person was left on the cross in order to rot away and to be eaten by scavengers, so that the punishment of crucifixion wasn't simply the torture involved – it also was the horrible effect of not being given a proper burial.
       
GROSS: The desecration of the body after death.

EHRMAN: Absolutely – the body was to desecrated, and this was scandalous to ancient people, but the Romans did it. This was as a disincentive for crime. So, it's not just that you're going to go through a horrible death; your body is going to rot in the cross, and scavengers are going to eat it, and this is the typical procedure for crucifixion in the ancient world.

And so, I ask in my book, is it likely that there was an exception in the case of Jesus? So in the Gospels, of course, Joseph of Arimathea asks for Jesus' body, and Pontius Pilate gives it to him; and then, Joseph puts it in his tomb; and three days later that tomb is found empty.....I think it's highly unlikely, for reasons that I lay out in the book, given what we know about Pilate from other sources.

GROSS: What are some of the reasons you think Pilate would not have made an exception?

EHRMAN: Well, what we know about Pilate comes to us from various sources, including the Jewish historian Josephus and the philosopher from Alexandria, Egypt named Philo. What we learn about Pilate from these sources is that Pilate was not a nice fellow. He was not concerned about the people that he ruled. He was ruthless. He was hard-hearted. He was mean-spirited, and he simply did not care about the religious sensibilities of the Jews in Palestine...And so...there's nothing in the record to suggest that Pilate would ever do that, and we have no record of any governor of any province in the entire Roman Empire who would bow to the religious sensibilities of their people in order to give somebody a decent burial. And so, it seems unlikely to me that the exception was made in the case of Jesus.

GROSS: Say an exception was made. Do you have other questions about the entombment of Jesus before the resurrection?

EHRMAN: Yeah. You know, before I wrote this book and did the research on it, I was convinced, as many people are, that Jesus was given a decent burial, and on the third day, the women when to the tomb, found it empty, and that started the belief in the resurrection. Apart from the fact that I don't think Jesus was given a decent burial – that he was probably thrown into a common grave of some kind – apart from that, I was struck in doing my research that the New Testament never indicates that people came to believe in the resurrection because of the empty tomb, and this was a striking find because it's just commonly said – that that's what led to the resurrection belief....

Near the end of the segment, Gross raised the question of the timing of the release of her guest's latest book. Ehrman cited a supposed Christian colleague of his, as he tried to refute the accusation that he was trying to attack Christianity:


GROSS: ...Your book, 'How Jesus Became God,' is published to coincide with Easter, and Easter, of course, celebrates the resurrection of Jesus – something which your book challenges as not having actually happened historically. So, on the one hand, you can argue the timing of this is great. It – you know, continues a debate and a conversation at exactly the right time. On the other hand, you could say the publication of the book is timed in a very sacrilegious way because it challenges – it historically challenges the fundamental, or at least a fundamental belief of Christianity. How do you feel about the book being published just in time for Easter?

EHRMAN: I think it's important to understand that in this book, I actually do not take a stand on either the question of whether Jesus was God or whether he was actually raised from the dead. I leave open both questions because those are theological questions based on religious beliefs, and I'm writing the book as a historian. I'm not allowing my religious beliefs or disbeliefs to affect how I tell the historical story of how Christology developed – how Jesus became God. And so, I leave open the question of whether Jesus was raised from the dead by saying that the reason the disciples believed he was raised from the dead is because they had visions of him. Believers will say, well, that's because Jesus really appeared to them; and non-Christians will say, well, they had hallucinations. But I leave open both possibilities.

The same is true with whether Jesus was God. I should say I had several colleagues read this book to give me suggestions about how to do it. These colleagues are all themselves Christian –  they're Christian scholars – and I know one of them for sure, if you ask him, will say, is Jesus God? He'll say, yes, Jesus is God, and he doesn't disagree with anything fundamental in this book at all. So, I leave open the question of whether Jesus is God, and open the question of whether he was raised from the dead, because I see those as theological and religious questions – whereas I'm interested in the historical questions.

So I feel very good about this book being released at the time of Easter, because I think these are important historical issues of importance of course to Christians, and especially at this time of year – but important, as well, to everybody who has any interest at all in Western civilization, because this ended up being one of the most important questions for the development of our form of civilization....

Matthew Balan
Matthew Balan
Matthew Balan is a news analyst at Media Research Center