Bart Ehrman

Bart Ehrman


While reading Bart D. Ehrman’s “Did Jesus Exist,” HarperOne, 2012, I noticed what appears to be a Paradox. Ehrman claims that we can know some opinions Jesus expresses in the gospels were really the historical Jesus’ opinions because they match Paul’s opinions. A few pages later, he claims that we can know some opinions of Jesus from the gospels are the opinions of the historical Jesus because they do not match Paul’s opinion.

Here is the first passage in question from pg: 303:

John’s message was one of impending apocalyptic judgment. Jesus started his public ministry subscribing to that view.

We not only know how Jesus started, we also know, with even greater certainty, what happened among his followers after he died. They began to establish communities of believers around the Mditerranean. We have our first glimpse of these communities in the writings of our earliest Christian author, Paul. And it is clear what these communities (and Paul) were like. They were filled with expectations that they–the Christians at the time–would be alive when Jesus returned from heaven as judge of the earth (see, for example, 1 Thessalonians 4:13-5:12 and 1 Corinthians 15). In other words Christianity started out as an apocalyptic movement after the death of Jesus.

We can know that Jesus is an apocalyptic preacher because Paul, the earliest writer of the earliest Christian Communities, wrote things similar to it that agrees with it.

Here is Ehrman arguing ten pages later, on page 312:

But he then informs them, “Truly I say to you, insofar as you did not do it to the least of these, my brothers, neither did you do it to me.” And he then sends them “away into eternal punishment,” whereas the righteous enter “into eternal life” (Matthew 25:41-46)

What is striking about this story, when considered in light of the criterion of dissimilarity, is that there is nothing distinctively Christian about it. That is, the future judgment is based, not on belief in Jesus’s death and resurrection, but on doing good things for those in need. Later Christians–including most notably Paul (see, for example, 1 Thessalonians 4:14-18) but also the writers of the Gospels–maintained that it was belief in Jesus that would bring a person into the coming kingdom. But nothing in this passage even hints at the need to believe in Jesus per se: these people didn’t even know him. What matters is helping the poor, oppressed, and needy. It does not seem likely that a Christian would formulate a passage in just this way.

The conclusion? The sayings of the passage probably go back to Jesus.

We know that Jesus was concerned about helping the poor, oppressed, and needy, because he said that was the way to get to heaven, and “later Christians–including most notably Paul” did not hold that opinion.

In the first case, agreement with Paul because Paul is early means we have a true opinion of Jesus. In the second case disagreement with Paul, because Paul is later, means we have a true opinion of Jesus.

Worse, Ehrman even cites the same passages in Paul to prove both cases. In the First case Thessalonians 4:13-5:12, and in the second case, Thessalonians 4:14-18, which is certainly is a part of 4:13-5:12.

Thus we have a true opinion of Jesus because it matches the earliest source – Paul, but then invoking the principle of Dissimilarity, we have a true opinion of Jesus because it does not match the later source Paul.

Not only does Paul prove Jesus held an opinion when he agrees with it or disagrees with it, but it seems that Paul is both the earliest source when we invoke the principle of similarity (which Ehrman labels the principle of “multiple attestation,” but the same words of Paul magically become a later source when he invokes the “principle of dissimilarity.”

We can formulate Ehrman’s Paradox this way:

When Paul agrees with Jesus, this proves the historical Jesus held that opinion
When Paul contradicts Jesus, this proves the historical Jesus held that opinion.
Therefore Paul proves the historical Jesus held an opinion because he agrees or contradicts it.

Perhaps somebody wiser than I in ways of New Testament Scholars can help me understand this Paradox.