Jesus, Interrupted

by Bart D. Ehrman

Troy Shu
Troy Shu
Updated at: April 24, 2024
Jesus, Interrupted
Jesus, Interrupted

Explore the critical analysis of biblical discrepancies, authorship, and the human construction of Christianity in this insightful book summary. Discover how historical criticism can deepen, not undermine, your faith. Get actionable takeaways to apply these learnings.

What are the big ideas?

Discrepancies in Sacred Texts

The book delves deep into the contradictions and discrepancies across both the Old and New Testaments, challenging the notion of biblical inerrancy and urging a comparative, critical analysis of biblical accounts.

Examples include differing accounts of Jesus' resurrection and contradictions between Genesis creation stories.

Evolution of Scriptural Authorship

It highlights the likely non-authorship of key New Testament figures in the writings attributed to them, revealing a common ancient practice of writing in the name of influential figures to lend texts authority.

Texts like the Gospels and Pauline epistles are discussed as likely not written by their namesake apostles but by later writers.

Mythological Framework of Christianity

Proposes viewing Christianity and its scripture as a form of religious myth, providing a symbolic framework rather than a historical factual record.

Human Construction of the Bible

The book presents the idea that the Bible was shaped by a myriad of human authors over time, rather than being a directly divinely inspired document.

Discusses how different religious and political influences shaped the formation of the biblical canon.

Divergent Views Among Early Christians

Explores how early Christianity was not monolithic but comprised diverse groups with varying beliefs about key theological issues, which later influenced the New Testament's formation.

Historical Criticism as an Aid to Faith

The text argues that historical-critical methods, while often seen as corrosive to faith, can actually lead to a more informed and nuanced understanding of religious texts.

The author uses his own experience and that of other scholars to discuss how a deep historical understanding does not necessarily negate faith.

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Discrepancies in Sacred Texts

The book challenges the notion of biblical inerrancy - the belief that the Bible is free from errors or contradictions. It delves deep into the discrepancies and contradictions found across both the Old and New Testaments.

These discrepancies force readers to critically analyze and compare the different biblical accounts, rather than assuming they all convey the same message. For example, the book highlights conflicting details in the Gospels' accounts of Jesus' resurrection and the creation stories in Genesis.

This comparative, critical approach is crucial for understanding that the biblical authors had diverse perspectives, beliefs and agendas. It rejects the idea that the Bible is a single, unified text, and instead recognizes it as a collection of writings by different authors over centuries. Embracing these discrepancies allows each biblical author to speak for themselves, rather than imposing a false sense of harmony across the texts.

Here are specific examples from the context that support the key insight about discrepancies in sacred texts:

  • Differing Accounts of Jesus' Passion and Resurrection: The author notes several discrepancies between the Gospel accounts of Jesus' trial before Pontius Pilate, his crucifixion, and his resurrection. For example:

    • In Mark's account, Jesus says only two words to Pilate, while in John's account he has extended dialogues with Pilate.
    • In Mark, Jesus is flogged after his trial, while in John he is flogged in the middle of the proceedings.
    • The author states these differences show the Gospels "sometimes present different points of view on major issues."
  • Contradictions in Genesis Creation Stories: The author notes that the Bible contains not just minor discrepancies, but "alternative portrayals of major importance" across the different books. As an example, he cites the "contrasting messages" and "deeply rooted and significant disagreements" between the creation stories in Genesis.

  • Differing Perspectives of Biblical Authors: The author emphasizes that the biblical authors "did not agree on everything they discussed" and had their "own perspective, his own views, his own understandings of what the Christian faith is and should be." He states it is dangerous to assume the authors are "saying the same thing" across the different books.

The key point is that a critical, comparative analysis of the biblical texts reveals significant contradictions and discrepancies, challenging the notion of biblical inerrancy and urging readers to let "each author speak for himself" rather than harmonizing the different perspectives.

Evolution of Scriptural Authorship

The authorship of key biblical texts is often misattributed. Many New Testament writings, such as the Gospels and Pauline epistles, were likely not authored by the figures they are named after. This was a common ancient practice of writing under the name of influential people to lend a text more authority.

The Gospels, for example, were written anonymously and later attributed to figures like Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Similarly, several letters attributed to the apostle Paul were likely written by later authors claiming to be Paul, a phenomenon known as pseudepigraphy. This allowed the writings to benefit from Paul's reputation and credibility, even if he did not actually pen them.

Understanding this historical context is crucial for interpreting the Bible accurately. The true authors of these texts may have had different motivations, perspectives, and agendas than the famous figures they claimed to be. Recognizing the complex origins of biblical writings is an important step in studying them objectively and understanding their original meaning and significance.

Here are specific examples from the context that support the key insight about the evolution of scriptural authorship:

  • The Gospels: The Gospels are "probably misattributed" - John the disciple did not write the Gospel of John, and Matthew did not write the Gospel of Matthew.

  • Pauline Epistles: Only 7 of the 13 letters attributed to Paul are "almost certainly" written by him. The other 6 letters are considered "pseudepigraphic" or forged, written by authors claiming to be Paul.

  • Book of Hebrews: This book "does not name Paul as its author, and it almost certainly was not written by Paul." However, it was later accepted into the biblical canon because church fathers attributed it to Paul.

  • Book of James: This book was "no doubt written by someone named James, but the author does not claim to be any particular James." It was later attributed to James the brother of Jesus.

  • Prevalence of Forgery: The author notes that "literary forgery was a common phenomenon in the ancient world" and that there are many early Christian texts falsely attributed to figures like the apostle Peter.

The key concept here is pseudepigraphy - the practice of writing under a false name to lend authority to a text. This was a widespread ancient phenomenon, as the context illustrates through examples from the New Testament writings.

Mythological Framework of Christianity

The mythological framework of Christianity proposes viewing the religion and its scriptures as a symbolic system, rather than a historical factual record. This perspective suggests that the central beliefs and narratives of Christianity serve a symbolic, metaphorical purpose, providing a framework for understanding the human experience, rather than representing literal, verifiable events.

From this viewpoint, the stories, figures, and doctrines of Christianity are not necessarily meant to be interpreted as objective historical facts. Instead, they function as myths - narratives that convey deeper truths about the human condition, morality, and our relationship to the divine, through the use of symbolic, imaginative language.

This approach does not necessarily negate the value or significance of Christianity. Even if the specific details are not historically accurate, the mythological framework can still provide profound insights, spiritual guidance, and a sense of meaning and purpose for believers. The power of myth lies in its ability to speak to the universal human experience in a symbolic, evocative way.

Ultimately, this perspective invites a more nuanced, contextual understanding of Christianity, where the scriptures and beliefs are appreciated for their symbolic, metaphorical richness, rather than judged solely on their historical veracity. It suggests that the true value of Christianity may lie in its capacity to illuminate the human experience through the power of myth.

Here are specific examples from the context that support the key insight of viewing Christianity and its scripture as a form of religious myth, providing a symbolic framework rather than a historical factual record:

  • The author states that for some of his academic friends, "the myths still work and resonate with them" and they "find a kind of solace and power in their faith" despite agreeing with the author's historical-critical views of the Bible.

  • The author notes that the exalted view of Christ in the Gospel of John, where Jesus is portrayed as the divine pre-existent Word of God, was "a later Christian invention" and not the original view held by Jesus' followers. This suggests the Gospel accounts present a mythological, rather than strictly historical, portrayal of Jesus.

  • The author explains that the early Christian apocalyptic view of the afterlife, including beliefs in resurrection and eternal reward/punishment, was a way to address the "problem of theodicy" or reconcile the existence of suffering with belief in a just God. This apocalyptic framework provided a symbolic, mythological perspective rather than a factual historical account.

  • The author describes the "wild diversity" of early Christian groups, each with their own sacred texts and divergent perspectives on Jesus and the requirements of the faith. This diversity suggests Christianity developed through the lens of competing mythological frameworks, rather than a single historical record.

In summary, the context highlights how early Christianity and its scriptures evolved through the lens of symbolic, mythological frameworks that provided meaning and addressed theological concerns, rather than strictly historical factual accounts. Key terms include "myths", "symbolic framework", "apocalyptic view", and "mythological portrayal".

Human Construction of the Bible

The Bible was constructed over centuries by human authors with diverse perspectives, not directly inspired by God. These authors were shaped by the cultural and historical assumptions of their time, leading to internal contradictions and differing viewpoints within the biblical texts.

The formation of the biblical canon was also a human process, driven by the desires of church leaders for unity and orthodoxy. They made decisions about which texts to include or exclude based on political, social, and theological factors, not divine intervention.

As a result, the Bible reflects the very human origins of its composition and canonization. It is not a perfect, inerrant document, but one that bears the marks of its human creators. Understanding this historical perspective can challenge traditional beliefs about the Bible's divine inspiration and inerrancy.

Here are specific examples from the context that support the key insight that the Bible was shaped by human authors and influences, rather than being directly divinely inspired:

  • The author discusses how there were "lots of other Gospels available to the early Christians, as well as epistles, Acts, and apocalypses" that claimed to be written by apostles, yet the books that eventually made it into the biblical canon were selected by "church leaders who simply didn't know any better" or who may have left out books that "should have been included."

  • The author notes that "the creation of the Christian canon was not the only invention of the early Church" and that "a whole range of theological perspectives came into existence, not during the life of Jesus or even through the teachings of his original apostles but later, as the Christian church grew and came to be transformed into a new religion rather than a sect of Judaism." This includes key Christian doctrines like the "divinity of Christ, the Trinity, and the existence of heaven and hell."

  • The author explains that he came to see "Christianity as a very human religion" that "did not descend from on high" but was "created, down here on earth, among the followers of Jesus in the decades and centuries after his death."

  • The author discusses how the "formation of the canon is in some sense a movement to decide" which beliefs were "right" and that the "final decisions were not a foregone conclusion" as there were "Christians who insisted that this, that, or the other book had a rightful place in the canon."

Divergent Views Among Early Christians

Early Christianity was not a single, unified movement. Rather, it comprised diverse groups with divergent beliefs about fundamental theological issues. These groups vehemently disagreed on topics like the nature of Jesus, the role of Jewish law, and the timing of the end times.

Each group claimed their views represented the true teachings of Jesus and his apostles. They produced their own sacred texts to support their positions. This theological diversity persisted for centuries, with no single "orthodox" form of Christianity emerging until later.

The eventual triumph of one particular Christian group - the one centered in Rome - was not due to their views being the original or correct ones. Rather, it was the result of their greater organizational power and influence, allowing them to suppress competing perspectives and rewrite the history of early Christianity.

This rich diversity of early Christian beliefs challenges the common assumption that there was always a single, consistent form of the faith dating back to Jesus. In reality, the Christianity we know today is the product of complex historical developments, not a direct continuation of the original teachings.

Here are specific examples from the context that support the key insight about the divergent views among early Christians:

  • The Ebionites were a group of Jewish Christians who believed Jesus was the Messiah but maintained the need to follow Mosaic law, in contrast to Paul's view that gentiles did not need to become Jewish to follow Jesus.

  • Some early Christian groups saw no sharp division between what would later be called "heresy" and "orthodoxy" - views that were later deemed heretical were considered orthodox in their own time.

  • In some places, Marcionite Christianity was dominant, while in others, one or another Gnostic system prevailed, showing the diversity of early Christian beliefs.

  • The Gnostic Gospel of Judas, a "heretical" text, was one of the most recent discoveries, illustrating how "heretical" texts continue to emerge that challenge the traditional narrative.

  • The Nag Hammadi treatises, discovered in 1945, were also "heretical" works that showed the wide range of beliefs in early Christianity, rather than a single, unified orthodoxy.

  • The canon of Scripture that emerged represented the books favored by the group that eventually won out, not necessarily the original or most widespread beliefs of early Christians.

Key terms:

  • Ebionites: Jewish Christians who believed in following Mosaic law
  • Marcionite Christianity: A form of Christianity that was dominant in some regions
  • Gnostic systems: Diverse belief systems labeled as "heretical" by later orthodoxy
  • Canon of Scripture: The collection of books that became accepted as authoritative

Historical Criticism as an Aid to Faith

Historical criticism can strengthen one's faith, not undermine it. By understanding the historical context and diverse perspectives within religious texts, individuals can develop a more nuanced and thoughtful faith.

The author's own experience and that of other scholars demonstrate this. Many scholars who adopt a historical-critical approach to the Bible remain committed Christians. Their faith was not shattered, but rather deepened by grappling with the complexities revealed through historical analysis.

Embracing historical criticism does not necessitate abandoning one's faith. Rather, it can lead to a more intelligent and thoughtful faith - one that acknowledges the human element in sacred texts while still finding spiritual meaning and guidance within them. This approach allows individuals to critically engage with their religious tradition, rather than blindly accepting it.

Here are specific examples from the context that support the key insight that historical-critical methods can aid faith:

  • The author states that many of his closest friends in New Testament studies, who agree with his historical views, "have remained committed Christians" and are "active in their churches." This shows that historical criticism does not necessarily lead to a loss of faith.

  • The author explains that he himself went from evangelical Christianity to agnosticism, but notes that this was due to the "problem of suffering," not because of historical criticism of the Bible. This further demonstrates that historical criticism does not inevitably undermine faith.

  • The author notes that "a very large percentage of seminarians are completely blind-sided by the historical-critical method" when they first encounter it, as it challenges their preconceptions about the Bible. However, the text suggests that over time, many of these students are able to reconcile historical criticism with their faith.

  • The author states that his "views of the Bible as the inerrant Word of God changed years earlier" due to realizing that we don't have the original inspired words, which "opened the door to the possibility that the Bible is a very human book." This allowed him to study it from a historical-critical perspective, which "did not lead me to become an agnostic."

  • The author argues that historical criticism can in fact "lead to a more intelligent and thoughtful faith—certainly more intelligent and thoughtful than an approach to the Bible that overlooks all of the problems that historical critics have discovered over the years." This suggests historical criticism can deepen and strengthen faith.


Let's take a look at some key quotes from "Jesus, Interrupted" that resonated with readers.

One of the most amazing and perplexing features of mainstream Christianity is that seminarians who learn the historical-critical method in their Bible classes appear to forget all about it when it comes time for them to be pastors. They are taught critical approaches to Scripture, they learn about the discrepancies and contradictions, they discover all sorts of historical errors and mistakes, they come to realize that it is difficult to know whether Moses existed or what Jesus actually said and did, they find that there are other books that were at one time considered canonical but that ultimately did not become part of Scripture (for example, other Gospels and Apocalypses), they come to recognize that a good number of the books of the Bible are pseudonymous (for example, written in the name of an apostle by someone else), that in fact we don't have the original copies of any of the biblical books but only copies made centuries later, all of which have been altered. They learn all of this, and yet when they enter church ministry they appear to put it back on the shelf. For reasons I will explore in the conclusion, pastors are, as a rule, reluctant to teach what they learned about the Bible in seminary.

Many religious leaders are taught to critically examine sacred texts in their educational institutions, but they often neglect to apply this knowledge in their ministerial roles. Despite learning about inconsistencies, errors, and unknowns in these texts, they tend to set aside this understanding when serving as pastors. This phenomenon is puzzling, as one would expect them to share their knowledge with their congregations, promoting a more informed and thoughtful approach to faith. Instead, they often revert to a more simplistic or traditional view of scripture.

[P]eople need to use their intelligence to evaluate what they find to be true and untrue in the Bible. This is how we need to live life generally. Everything we hear and see we need to evaluate—whether the inspiring writings of the Bible or the inspiring writings of Shakespeare, Dostoevsky, or George Eliot, of Ghandi, Desmond Tutu, or the Dalai Lama.

Critical thinking is essential in evaluating information, whether it's from sacred texts or renowned authors. We must use our intelligence to discern what is true and what is not, applying this skill to all aspects of life. By doing so, we can develop a more informed and thoughtful understanding of the world around us.

The historical problems with Luke are even more pronounced. For one thing, we have relatively good records for the reign of Caesar Augustus, and there is no mention anywhere in any of them of an empire-wide census for which everyone had to register by returning to their ancestral home. And how could such a thing even be imagined? Joesph returns to Bethlehem because his ancestor David was born there. But David lived a thousand years before Joseph. Are we to imagine that everyone in the Roman Empire was required to return to the homes of their ancestors from a thousand years earlier? If we had a new worldwide census today and each of us had to return to the towns of our ancestors a thousand years back—where would you go? Can you imagine the total disruption of human life that this kind of universal exodus would require? And can you imagine that such a project would never be mentioned in any of the newspapers? There is not a single reference to any such census in any ancient source, apart from Luke. Why then does Luke say there was such a census? The answer may seem obvious to you. He wanted Jesus to be born in Bethlehem, even though he knew he came from Nazareth ... there is a prophecy in the Old Testament book of Micah that a savior would come from Bethlehem. What were these Gospel writer to do with the fact that it was widely known that Jesus came from Nazareth? They had to come up with a narrative that explained how he came from Nazareth, in Galilee, a little one-horse town that no one had ever heard of, but was born in Bethlehem, the home of King David, royal ancestor of the Messiah.

The writer questions the historical accuracy of a specific event in the Bible, highlighting the implausibility of a Roman Empire-wide census requiring people to return to their ancestral homes. This event is likely a narrative device to fulfill an Old Testament prophecy, rather than a real historical occurrence. The author suggests that the Gospel writers had to come up with a creative explanation for Jesus' birthplace, as it was well-known he came from Nazareth, not Bethlehem.

Comprehension Questions

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How well do you understand the key insights in "Jesus, Interrupted"? Find out by answering the questions below. Try to answer the question yourself before revealing the answer! Mark the questions as done once you've answered them.

1. What theological concept asserts that the Bible is free from errors or contradictions?
2. Why is it important to recognize discrepancies among biblical authors?
3. How do differing accounts of events in the Bible influence the interpretation of its texts?
4. What implication does the presence of discrepancies in the Bible have on its interpretation?
5. Why might ancient authors choose to attribute their writings to well-known figures instead of using their own names?
6. What is the term used to describe the phenomenon of writing under a false name to lend credibility to a text?
7. How does understanding the true authorship of religious texts affect their interpretation?
8. What does the symbolic interpretation of Christian scriptures suggest about the nature of its narratives?
9. How does the mythological perspective on Christianity affect the perceived value of its teachings, even if not historically accurate?
10. What role do myths play in the religious framework according to the symbolic view of Christianity?
11. How does the narrative of the Gospel of John illustrate the mythological framework approach?
12. What theological issue does the apocalyptic view in early Christian belief address and how?
13. How did the cultural and historical context of the authors influence the content of the Bible?
14. What factors influenced the canonization of the Bible?
15. In what way does the Bible reflect the human origins of its composition?
16. What does the existence of diverse groups in early Christianity indicate about its belief system?
17. Why did the group centered in Rome eventually dominate over other Christian groups?
18. What role did the creation of sacred texts play among the early Christian groups?
19. How does the emergence of texts like the Gospel of Judas and the Nag Hammadi treatises impact our understanding of early Christian beliefs?
20. How can understanding the historical context of religious texts impact one's faith?
21. What is the potential effect of embracing historical criticism on a person's religious beliefs?
22. Why does historical criticism not necessarily lead to abandoning one’s faith?
23. How might historical criticism change a person's view of religious texts?
24. In what ways can grappling with the complexities revealed through historical analysis of religious texts deepen someone's faith?

Action Questions

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"Knowledge without application is useless," Bruce Lee said. Answer the questions below to practice applying the key insights from "Jesus, Interrupted". Mark the questions as done once you've answered them.

1. How can engaging with diverse interpretations of religious texts enhance your understanding of faith and spirituality?
2. What steps can you take to encourage open discussions on religious contradictions in your community?
3. How can recognizing the concept of authorship influence enhance critical reading and interpretation of historical texts?
4. In what ways can understanding the history and authenticity of authorship affect discussions and teachings of traditional texts in educational or religious settings?
5. How can adopting a mythological interpretation of religious stories enhance your understanding of their underlying moral and philosophical messages?
6. In what ways can viewing religious doctrines as symbols rather than literal facts influence personal or community practices?
7. How might understanding the human influences behind religious texts affect your approach to interpreting and applying their teachings in modern contexts?
8. How can understanding the diversity of early Christian beliefs influence your own approach to religious tolerance and inclusion today?
9. How can exploring the historical background of your religious texts influence your personal beliefs and practices?

Chapter Notes

Chapter One: A Historical Attack on Faith

Here are the key takeaways from the chapter:

  • Historical-Critical Method vs. Devotional Approach: The historical-critical method, which is the predominant approach to studying the Bible in mainline Protestant seminaries, focuses on understanding the original historical context and meaning of the biblical texts. This is in contrast to the devotional approach, which is more concerned with the personal and spiritual meaning of the Bible.

  • Seminarians' Shock at Historical-Critical Approach: Many seminarians who are trained in the historical-critical method are surprised and even shocked by the conclusions it leads to, such as the existence of discrepancies and contradictions in the Bible, the possibility that some biblical authors were not who they claimed to be, and the unreliability of the biblical narratives.

  • Examples of Biblical Discrepancies: The chapter provides several examples of discrepancies and contradictions in the Bible, such as the differences in the accounts of Jesus' cleansing of the Temple, Peter's denials, and the resurrection narratives.

  • Old Testament Discrepancies: The chapter also discusses discrepancies and problems in the Old Testament, such as the differences between the creation accounts in Genesis 1 and 2, and the inconsistencies in the Flood narrative.

  • Problematic Portrayals of God: The chapter highlights certain passages in the Bible that present a troubling or unworthy portrayal of God, such as the command to massacre the inhabitants of Jericho and the imprecatory Psalm 137.

  • Pastors' Reluctance to Teach Historical-Critical Findings: The chapter notes that many pastors who were trained in the historical-critical method in seminary often do not share these findings with their congregations, for various reasons.

  • The Author's Personal Journey: The author describes his own personal journey from being a fundamentalist who believed in the inerrancy of the Bible to eventually becoming an agnostic, not due to historical criticism alone, but due to the problem of suffering in the world.

  • Historical Criticism and Faith: The author emphasizes that historical criticism does not necessarily lead to a loss of faith, as many of his scholar friends who hold these views have remained committed Christians.

Chapter Two: A World of Contradictions

Here are the key takeaways from the chapter:

  • Discrepancies in the Bible: The Bible, both the Old and New Testaments, contains numerous discrepancies and contradictions, some of which are trivial while others are more significant. These discrepancies emerge when the Bible is examined from a historical perspective, rather than a devotional one.

  • Horizontal vs. Vertical Reading: Most readers of the Bible read the books in sequence, a "vertical" approach, which makes it difficult to detect the discrepancies. A "horizontal" approach, where one compares parallel accounts of the same event across different books, reveals these differences more clearly.

  • Discrepancies in the Gospels: The four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) contain numerous discrepancies in their accounts of Jesus' birth, life, death, and resurrection. For example, the Gospels provide different timelines for when Jesus was crucified and contradictory details about his trial before Pontius Pilate.

  • Discrepancies in the Accounts of Paul: Comparing the book of Acts with Paul's own letters reveals discrepancies in the details of Paul's life and ministry, such as the timeline of his conversion and the composition of the churches he established.

  • Implications of Discrepancies: The existence of discrepancies in the Bible has several important implications:

    • It challenges the view of the Bible as a completely inerrant historical account.
    • It requires readers to understand each author's unique perspective and not assume they are all saying the same thing.
    • It makes it difficult to establish with certainty what actually happened in the lives of Jesus and the early church.
  • Reconciling Discrepancies: While some discrepancies may be reconcilable through creative interpretation, others appear to be irreconcilable contradictions. The author argues that the goal should not be to force the accounts to fit together, but to understand each author's unique perspective and message.

Chapter Three: A Mass of Variant Views

Here are the key takeaways from the chapter:

  • Differences Among Biblical Authors: The biblical authors often had deeply rooted and significant disagreements on major issues, such as who Christ is, how salvation is attained, and how the followers of Jesus are to live. These differences go beyond minor discrepancies in details and affect the very heart of their message.

  • Harmonizing vs. Historical-Critical Approach: The harmonizing approach to the Bible, which is foundational to much devotional reading, assumes that each author is saying the same thing. In contrast, the historical-critical approach recognizes that the biblical authors had their own perspectives, views, and understandings of the Christian faith.

  • Differences in the Portrayal of Jesus' Death: The accounts of Jesus' death in the Gospels of Mark and Luke present very different portrayals. In Mark, Jesus dies in agony, feeling forsaken by God, while in Luke, Jesus is calm and confident, assured of God's presence and the rewards of Paradise.

  • Differences Between the Synoptic Gospels and John: The Gospel of John is strikingly different from the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) in its content, emphasis, and theological perspectives, such as the role of miracles, the identity of Jesus, and the nature of salvation.

  • Differences Between Paul and the Gospel Writers: Paul's teachings on salvation, the role of the law, and the relationship between Christians and the Roman state differ significantly from the views expressed in the Gospels and the book of Acts.

  • Difficulty in Reconciling Discrepancies: It is challenging for readers to reconcile the discrepancies and contradictions among the biblical authors, as each author has their own distinct perspective and message, which can be lost when their writings are combined or harmonized.

Chapter Four: Who Wrote the Bible?

Here are the key takeaways from the chapter:

  • Authorship of the Gospels: The Gospels were not written by the disciples whose names are attached to them (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John). The Gospels were written anonymously by highly educated, Greek-speaking Christians who lived outside of Palestine, not by the lower-class, illiterate, Aramaic-speaking followers of Jesus.

  • Papias' Testimony: The early church tradition about the authorship of the Gospels, as recorded by Papias, is unreliable. Papias provides third- or fourth-hand information that is often inaccurate when it can be checked against the actual texts.

  • Authorship of Other New Testament Books: Most of the other books in the New Testament were also not written by the people whose names are attached to them. Only 8 of the 27 books are almost certainly written by the authors to whom they are traditionally ascribed.

  • Pseudepigraphy in the Ancient World: Forging writings in the names of famous figures was a common practice in the ancient world, often with the intent to deceive readers into thinking the work was authored by the famous person. This was widely condemned but also widely practiced.

  • Pseudepigraphic Letters of Paul: Several of the letters attributed to Paul (2 Thessalonians, Colossians, Ephesians, the Pastoral Epistles) were likely not written by Paul himself, but by later authors writing in his name.

  • Widespread Scholarly Consensus: The view that many New Testament books were written under false names is the consensus among critical scholars teaching at major institutions, seminaries, and divinity schools in the Western world, though it is not widely known among the general public.

Chapter Five: Liar, Lunatic, or Lord? Finding Jesus

Here are the key takeaways from the chapter:

  • Jesus as an Apocalyptic Prophet: The majority of scholars understand Jesus as a Jewish apocalyptic prophet who preached the imminent arrival of the Kingdom of God and the coming judgment by the Son of Man. This view is supported by the earliest Gospel traditions.

  • Jesus' Teachings: Jesus taught that the Kingdom of God was soon to arrive, and that people needed to repent and prepare for this event by turning to God and loving their neighbor. He did not explicitly claim to be divine, and this idea was likely a later theological development.

  • Historical Sources for Jesus: The primary sources for reconstructing the historical Jesus are the Gospels, which were written decades after his death by authors who did not witness his life and ministry. There are very few non-Christian sources that mention Jesus, and these provide limited information.

  • Criteria for Evaluating Historical Traditions: Scholars use criteria such as early attestation, multiple independent sources, and dissimilarity from later Christian theology to assess the historical reliability of traditions about Jesus.

  • Jesus' Miracles and the Resurrection: Historians cannot establish the historical occurrence of miracles, including the resurrection of Jesus, because miracles by definition are the least probable explanation for events. Historians can only determine what probably happened, not what is virtually impossible.

  • Judas' Betrayal: The tradition that Judas betrayed Jesus likely indicates that Judas revealed to the authorities that Jesus had taught his disciples in private that he would be the future king in the coming Kingdom of God, which the authorities interpreted as a political threat.

Key terms and concepts:

  • Apocalyptic: Belief in the imminent end of the present age and the establishment of a new, divine kingdom on earth.
  • Son of Man: A figure from Jewish apocalyptic tradition who would come in judgment and establish God's kingdom.
  • Criterion of Dissimilarity: The principle that traditions about Jesus that do not fit later Christian theology are more likely to be historically accurate.
  • Miracles: Events that violate the normal, predictable workings of nature and are therefore highly improbable from a historical perspective.

Chapter Six: How We Got the Bible

Here are the key takeaways from the chapter:

  • We Don't Have the Original Texts of the New Testament: The author explains that we don't have the original manuscripts of any of the books of the New Testament. Instead, we only have much later copies, which contain many mistakes and variations.

  • Textual Variants Matter: While most textual variants are insignificant, the author argues that some do matter a great deal, as they can affect the interpretation of verses, chapters, or even entire books. He provides several examples to illustrate this point.

  • The Formation of the Biblical Canon Was a Long, Contentious Process: The author describes how the canon of the New Testament, consisting of 27 books, was not definitively established until the 4th century CE. Prior to this, there was much debate and disagreement over which books should be considered authoritative Scripture.

  • Early Christianity Was Diverse, with Many Competing Views: The author challenges the traditional view that there was a single, dominant "orthodox" form of Christianity from the beginning. Instead, he explains that there were many different Christian groups in the early centuries, each with their own beliefs and sacred texts.

  • The Proto-Orthodox Used Three "Weapons" to Establish Dominance: The author identifies three key tools the proto-orthodox Christians used to suppress competing views and establish their beliefs as orthodoxy: control over the clergy, the development of creeds, and the canonization of certain texts.

  • The Canon Was a Human, Not Divine, Process: The author concludes that the formation of the biblical canon, while often viewed as divinely inspired, was in fact a very human process driven by various historical, cultural, and political factors. The final decisions were not foregone conclusions.

Chapter Seven: Who Invented Christianity?

Here are the key takeaways from the chapter:

  • The Belief in a Suffering Messiah was an Invention of Early Christians: The idea that the Messiah would suffer and die for the sins of others was not part of Jewish expectations before Christianity. Early Christians had to reconcile their belief that Jesus was the Messiah with the fact that he was crucified, and they did so by reinterpreting certain Old Testament passages as prophecies of a suffering Messiah, even though the Messiah is not actually mentioned in those passages.

  • Christianity Became an Anti-Jewish Religion: The religion of Jesus was thoroughly Jewish, but his later followers transformed it into a religion that was often virulently anti-Jewish. This was due to factors like the belief that the Jews had rejected and killed their own Messiah, and the view that the Jewish people had been rejected by God in favor of the followers of Jesus.

  • The Divinity of Jesus Developed Over Time: The earliest followers of Jesus did not view him as divine, but as a human chosen by God. The idea that Jesus was the pre-existent divine Son of God, equal to the Father, emerged gradually and was not present in the earliest Christian traditions. This culminated in the doctrine of the Trinity, which was a later Christian invention not found in the New Testament.

  • The Concepts of Heaven and Hell Transformed Over Time: The earliest Christians, like Jesus himself, believed in a future resurrection and the establishment of God's kingdom on earth. The idea of the immortality of the soul and the concepts of heaven and hell as places where souls go after death emerged later and replaced the original apocalyptic vision.

  • Christianity Represents a Human Invention: The beliefs and perspectives that emerged among Jesus' later followers were different from the religion of Jesus himself. The development of Christianity into the religion we know today was a gradual process involving many unnamed Christian thinkers and preachers, shaped by historical and cultural factors, rather than a direct and simple outgrowth of Jesus' teachings.

Chapter Eight: Is Faith Possible?

Here are the key takeaways from the chapter:

  • Historical Criticism and Faith: The historical-critical approach to the Bible does not necessarily lead to agnosticism or atheism. It can in fact lead to a more intelligent and thoughtful faith, rather than an approach that overlooks the problems that historical critics have discovered.

  • Discrepancies and Differences in the New Testament: The author came to see that there were flat-out discrepancies among the books of the New Testament, and that different authors had completely different understandings of important issues. Many of the books were also not written by the people to whom they are attributed.

  • Christianity as a Human Creation: The author came to see Christianity as a very human religion, created by the followers of Jesus in the decades and centuries after his death, rather than descending from on high.

  • Viewing the Bible and Christianity as Myth: The author came to view the Christian message about God, Christ, and salvation as a kind of religious "myth" - a set of stories, views, and perspectives that are unproven and unprovable, but also un-disprovable, that can inform and guide one's life and thinking.

  • Leaving the Faith: The author left the Christian faith not because of the inherent problems of faith or the historical-critical view of the Bible, but because he could no longer see how the central Christian beliefs made sense to him given the reality of human suffering in the world.

  • Theological Value of Historical Criticism: Historical criticism can show that certain theological claims, like the Bible being a unified, inerrant whole, are inadequate. It can also help readers evaluate the appropriateness and relevance of different biblical messages for their own context.

  • Studying the Bible as an Agnostic: The author continues to study and teach the Bible, even as an agnostic, because it is the most important book in the history of Western civilization and deserves to be read and studied, not just as a document of faith but also as a historical record.


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