Bart Erhman’s Heaven and Hell—Any JW Could Have Written This!

Okay, start by walking it back. They couldn’t. Not all of it. But the gist of it they could, and that is a claim that few others can make.

When I read Bart’s contribution to Time Magazine, it was as though I was reading the Watchtower! The occasion is the release of his latest book Heaven and Hell, (he has over 30!) in which he speaks in absolute agreement about topics that Jehovah’s Witnesses know well—and have known well for over 100 years—topics such as soul, psyche, Sheol, Gehenna, notions of heaven, and notions of hell. 

A very few of his paragraphs wouldn’t fit—mostly the ones that are muddled. But for the most part, the content of his book is very very familiar. It is so familiar that I even begin to float the notion that he keeps up with Watchtower publications—the writers there are far and away the most vocal proponents of the ideas he has picked up on—some might say the only proponents.

Not that he would accept the Watchtower as a source in itself, I don’t think. But what I can easily picture is him keeping abreast of their writing and the explanations that only they have, then tracing it back to original sources, whereupon he verifies it all and presents it as though his own research—which it would be, minus the credit for who put him on the right track in the first place. 

Okay, okay—maybe he’s not ripping off their work. Probably he is not. He is a respected scholar, after all. But in that case, the scholarship of the Watchtower must be elevated, for it is the same—and their critics generally assume that they have none.

Take a few excerpts of Erhman’s article:

Neither Jesus, nor the Hebrew Bible he interpreted, endorsed the view that departed souls go to paradise or everlasting pain.

Unlike most Greeks, ancient Jews traditionally did not believe the soul could exist at all apart from the body. On the contrary, for them, the soul was more like the “breath.” The first human God created, Adam, began as a lump of clay; then God “breathed” life into him (Genesis 2: 7). Adam remained alive until he stopped breathing. Then it was dust to dust, ashes to ashes... When we stop breathing, our breath doesn’t go anywhere. It just stops. So too the “soul” doesn’t continue on outside the body, subject to postmortem pleasure or pain. It doesn’t exist any longer.

The Hebrew Bible itself assumes that the dead are simply dead—that their body lies in the grave, and there is no consciousness, ever again. It is true that some poetic authors, for example in the Psalms, use the mysterious term “Sheol” to describe a person’s new location. But in most instances Sheol is simply a synonym for “tomb” or “grave.” It’s not a place where someone actually goes.

and later: 

Most people today would be surprised to learn that Jesus believed in a bodily eternal life here on earth, instead of eternal bliss for souls, but even more that he did not believe in hell as a place of eternal torment.

In traditional English versions, he does occasionally seem to speak of “Hell” – for example, in his warnings in the Sermon on the Mount: anyone who calls another a fool, or who allows their right eye or hand to sin, will be cast into “hell” (Matthew 5:22, 29-30). But these passages are not actually referring to “hell.” The word Jesus uses is “Gehenna.” The term does not refer to a place of eternal torment but to a notorious valley just outside the walls of Jerusalem, believed by many Jews at the time to be the most unholy, god-forsaken place on earth. It was where, according to the Old Testament, ancient Israelites practiced child sacrifice to foreign gods. The God of Israel had condemned and forsaken the place.

In the ancient world (whether Greek, Roman, or Jewish), the worst punishment a person could experience after death was to be denied a decent burial. Jesus developed this view into a repugnant scenario: corpses of those excluded from the kingdom would be unceremoniously tossed into the most desecrated dumping ground on the planet. Jesus did not say souls would be tortured there. They simply would no longer exist.”

Anyone who knows anything about Jehovah’s Witnesses knows that these are exactly their views. Is Bart just taking our stuff? No—it can’t be—I wouldn’t make the charge. But I can be forgiven the suspicion. Do a search on any of these terms at JW.org and you will find what he now says. Maybe it is simply basic research that any decent scholar could uncover, as Bart has, but in that case it is all the more damning for the world of churches. Not only do they make no mention of these things, but they consider most of them heresies.

Witnesses were there before he was born. He can’t not know it. When I search his own blog (which I am jealous of—he has a good gig going, and I like the platform), virtually nothing about Jehovah’s Witnesses comes up, apart from a post about the name Jehovah itself, in which he misses entirely the import of God having a name rather than a title, to focus on its Latin letters, and thus declaring it false. I found nothing else beyond a few brief, usually derogatory comments from contributors, to which he typically would answer that he is not very familiar with it.

Nobody espouses on these ‘afterlife’ views of his like Jehovah’s Witnesses, and apart from them almost nobody else does—and yet he never mentions Witnesses. This seems parallel to when Ronald Sider suggests four reforms that he thinks would solve the problems of the evangelical church (that they don’t practice what they preach), stating that nobody implements these reforms, and ignoring completely that Jehovah’s Witnesses do, and that yes, they do go a long way in solving the problem he has identified. 

“Most people today would be surprised to learn that Jesus believed in a bodily eternal life here on earth, instead of eternal bliss for souls, but even more that he did not believe in hell as a place of eternal torment.” says Bart.

We’ve taught this for 100 years and, yes, they are surprised. Why? Because such things were never taught at church. Instead, the near-universal teaching of church Christianity is that when you die, you go to heaven if you were good, and hell if you were bad. That is what just about everyone of church background thought before becoming a Witness. I have said before that, given the universality of the heaven/hell teaching, you would almost expect it to be on every other page of the Bible. Instead, apart from a handful of verses that can be tortured for that meaning, it is never encountered. It is among the reasons that, on becoming Witnesses, people are wont to say that they have “come into the truth.” The explanations are so simple. The Bible comes together and makes sense. After all, if God wanted persons in heaven, why didn’t he put them there in the first place?

There are over two billion Christians in the world, the vast majority of whom believe in heaven and hell. You die and your soul goes either to everlasting bliss or torment (or purgatory en route). ...The vast majority of these people naturally assume this is what Jesus himself taught.” states Bart.

Yes, of course they would assume it. Most church teachings—people simply assume that they are to be found in the Bible—why would the church teach something Jesus did not? For many, the you-know-what hits the fan when they discover that such is in fact the case. From this arises the saying among Witnesses, not heard so often as it once was, that new ones ought to be locked up for six months until their zeal is tempered with common sense.

There was a pesty fellow who used to challenge me a lot on trinity and other church teachings. One day he sent me a video of “4 famous church leaders” hubbubing in conference, in which he said they acknowledged that everlasting life on earth was the actual Bible hope—it wasn’t just JWs who taught it. I couldn’t get far into it—it was just too smarmy. I told him I’d take his word for it. Though these leaders knew and discussed the actual role of the earth as our permanent home, the problem was “Bible illiteracy” among the masses, he said. 

If the problem is Bible literacy among the masses, I replied, why don’t they fix it? Isn’t that their job as leaders? Ones taking the lead in our faith manage to keep people on the same page.

So what to do with Bart? Is he taking our stuff? Nah—I guess not. If the four famous church leaders knew things that they hadn’t bothered to tell the masses, maybe it is out there for Bart to find as well. I have not been especially kind to him in previous posts, and maybe I should walk some of it back. He presents as though an agnostic/atheist in his Great Courses lecture series and annoys me on that account. I’ve written about ten posts, none of them kind, with several more in the hopper that I may or may not ever get to, and I may have to rethink some of them. Fortunately, I have already made it clear that nothing is personal—it is ideas that you squabble with, not the persons who hold them, for they are more-or-less interchangeable placeholders.

But he had better be careful. He joins the ranks of people like Bruce Speiss, Jason Beduhn, Joel Engardio, and Gunnar Samuelson, who write something that squares with JW beliefs, and spend the rest of their days on earth denying that they are one of them. Occasionally, they must even issue statements to the effect of  “Look, I'm not one of Jehovah’s Witnesses. I don’t agree with Jehovah’s Witnesses. I don’t even like Jehovah’s Witnesses.” But it’s too late! The damage has been done! Sigh....what's a scholar to do? Agreeing with Jehovah’s Witnesses is detrimental to one’s career, and yet Jehovah’s Witnesses are right on so many things. And the things they're right about, they have been saying for a long time, so it’s embarrassing for cutting edge scholars to endorse what the JWs, for the most part unscholarly and ordinary folk, have long maintained.

Fortunately (or unfortunately) he veers aside frequently enough so people may not make the mistake. Such as:

“Some thinkers came up with a solution [shortly before Christ] that explained how God would bring about justice... This new idea maintained that there are evil forces in the world aligned against God and determined to afflict his people. Even though God is the ultimate ruler over all, he has temporarily relinquished control of this world for some mysterious reason. But the forces of evil have little time left. God is soon to intervene in earthly affairs to destroy everything and everyone that opposes him and to bring in a new realm for his true followers, a Kingdom of God, a paradise on earth. Most important, this new earthly kingdom will come not only to those alive at the time, but also to those who have died. Indeed, God will breathe life back into the dead, restoring them to an earthly existence.” (italics and bolded text mine. “Some mysterious reason”—he doesn’t know that?! after nailing it on so many other points!)

Not to mention his muddled:

“And God will bring all the dead back to life, not just the righteous. The multitude who had been opposed to God will also be raised, but for a different reason: to see the errors of their ways and be judged. Once they are shocked and filled with regret – but too late — they will permanently be wiped out of existence.” Sigh...it is as Anthony Morris said: “Just stick with publications of the slave, and you will be alright.” The moment he goes “off-script” he comes up with some half-baked “nah nah—told ya so!” diatribe from his born-again days that he grew out of (and they do not look upon him kindly for that reason).

One of my own chums pulled me back from the edge, just as I was about to go apoplectic and accuse Bart of plagiarizing us: “I don't think all of this is that new to Bart Ehrman. I caught some of this on his site. But I had never noticed before, that he now sees Jesus' actual words in pretty much the same sense that JWs believe,” he said. He had spent the few dollars to subscribe to the Bart site for a month, so as to ask a question or two. I read some of the Bart site, and he makes a better impression on me there than he does as Great Courses lecturer.

My chum said of our own work and of Bart’s: “I think that the Watchtower (Bible Students and JWs) have done an enormous service to the religious world by "putting out the fires of hell." It has taken the last 100 years, but I believe that there are a lot of churches where the Watchtower has provided a strong influence so that those churches and their teachers are not so likely to emphasize the teachings that make God seem like a monster. For good or bad Ehrman does have influence, especially on new students, and this last book might even help a bit in opening up some opportunities for our own work.”

Odd “allies” we may yet become.

...

It may be that one should take a new look at Time Magazine, as well. I subscribed to Time a little over two years ago, enticed by an absurdly low rate, with the thought I would cancel when the auto-renewal hit. When it hit, I did cancel, because the magazine—once a powerhouse, but now upstaged amidst the digital revolution, seemed no more than “same-old same-old” to me. Nothing wrong with it, but neither was it unique. My curiosity had been peaked by the low subscription rate. 

I now think super low rate was because a sale was pending, and they wanted to enhance whatever subscriber base they still had to pretty it up for purchase. Mark Benoif has bought it, he who is the Salesforce company founder—a guy worth 6 billion, I am told. He joins Jeff Bezos who bought the Washington Post, and Lourene Jobs (widow of Steve) who bought a majority stake in Atlantic.

Not sure how the new owners will change the brands they bought, however I can’t picture this Ehrman piece in the old Time (or in fact, anywhere). This might be evidence that it is o longer same-old same old.” In an effort to compete, these outlets may be going places that they have never gone before.

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Ehrman on Matthew—and How I Was Always the Cleaner

During Mike’s fanatical and zealous ministry days, he worked part-time in a parking lot. During my steady-as-she-goes balanced days, I worked as a cleaner. Sometimes in the ministry I would accompany him. When householders would slam the door in his face I would say to myself, “Well, they really had no choice.” (not to worrry—he’s been gone for a long time now)

Mike had worked hard to land his Public Parking job. The owner told him day after day that he had no openings. Moreover, he kept pointing out that Mike was overqualified—probably he would last one or two boring days and quit. However, Mike’s favorite scripture was the one about the widow who nagged the unrighteous judge to get what she wanted.

Any counselor on job-seeking will tell you that you do not go day after day to badger the would-be employer after he has turned you down. Mike swore by the system and used it repeatedly. Eventually that employer would throw all his notions of what is proper out the window and hire you just to get you out of his hair, after which you work to prove that he made a good decision. Of course, you have to have incredibly thick skin to pursue this strategy. Mike had that.

Every day he showed up bright and early to wheedle the parking lot owner, Every day he was turned away. One day the fellow said, “I don’t know why you want this job so much, but as it turns out, one of the guys didn’t show this morning. If you want to take his place, I’ll hire you.” Thus began several years for Mike in the parking lot shack, where he could study to his heart’s content all day long and if thieves had towed away every car in the lot, he would not have noticed.

In time, he also picked up a distributorship for a line of cheap jewelry. Anyone who knew jewelry stayed far away from the stuff, but many didn’t know it any better than he—if it shined, it sold.

Mike was very taken at the time with his role of teaching the Bible for free. He loved Jesus words, “You received free—give free. No making a buck off teaching the Word of God for him! Pretty much everything was a scam in his eyes—he had been raised in a company of carnival performers—and there was no scam he considered more pernicious than religion.

“I don’t make any money doing this,” he would tell the householder, with earnestness so thick you could cut it with a knife. “I work in a parking lot. Tom works, too, as a janitor.” However, if he was working in affluent areas, he would say “I don’t make any money doing this. I sell jewelry. Tom works, too, as a janitor.” I might as well have held up a mop at that point to confirm his words. His work description changed—mine didn’t!

 

I don’t know why the Great Courses professor can’t get his head around this. When you are addressing an audience, you select arrows from your quiver most likely to help you make your case. Just because you leave the ‘parking lot’ arrow in your quiver to launch the ‘jewelry’ one instead does not mean that it does not exist.

You think you can get this through Professor Ehrman’s head? He leaves Mark to consider Matthew and he develops the theme of how Matthew presents Jesus as “the Jewish messiah.” This is not particularly controversial. Every JW knows it. Well—they may not know it, many of them, because it is an incidental topic, not the centerpiece the Professor makes it of his lecture, but if they hit their own books they will find that it is so. Jerome and Origen even say that the Gospel, alone of all New Testament books, was first written in Hebrew. This second lecture from the Professor annoys less than the first because so much of it purports to prove this point that Witnesses already know.

Alas, he presently veers off into explaining “redaction criticism.” See, the writer of Matthew probably had a copy of Mark, “scholars agree,” so if Mark contains something that Matthew does not it is because the latter “redacted” that something—he took it out because it didn’t suit his purpose. Well, in fact that’s what Mike did in the affluent areas—redacting the parking lot for the jewelry salesman (though I was always a cleaner). Other than annoying me, there is nothing wrong with this—in fact, it is just using common sense to reach your audience. “To the Jews I became as a Jew in order to gain Jews...to those without law I became as without law...to the weak I became weak, in order to gain the weak,” the apostle would write later. You do what you must to reach your audience.

But the professor looks for signs of division. He doesn’t look for signs of agreement. To him the early Bible writers are competing with one another. They are “changing the narrative” so as to promote their own “theologies.” They are all like traveling snake oil salesmen, each hawking his own product, each hoping to run the other off the road. Oh—and with the added nettlement that, since Jesus’ 12 disciples were “peasants” obviously incapable of writing narratives—even given all the time in China—“educated” persons must have written those books and identified themselves as Mark, Matthew, and John, to lend their own view more authority. He all but says it of Jesus’ twelve: “Stupid is as stupid does.”

Then the professor comes to the Pharisees. His lecture is not just about what Matthew “redacted” because he didn’t like it—it is also about what he appends because he does like it and wants to change the story. To be the “Jewish messiah” you must pick a fight with those who think you are not, so Jesus does so with the Pharisees.

The professor has already, in a prior lecture, shown himself bewildered that the Pharisees should be known as hypocrites. ‘How can that be?’ he considers, as he presents them as though just nice guys trying to do their best—as any of us would. It is Jesus who calls them hypocrites, not he—they who just have a different “interpretation”—can that possibly justify ad hominem attacks? It is a humanist point of view that the professor exudes. It only needs someone to think it for a viewpoint to be valid. One way to gut scripture is to interpret away whatever you don’t like.

The professor would be a nightmare in the congregation—it’s well that he is not there. The Pharisees were not “professional hypocrites”—he makes a little joke of how he tells his students they didn’t have to take the “hypocritic oath”—they were just a highly committed group of Jews determined to follow the Law as completely as possible. However, the problem with Law was that it was not “explicit” in how it ought to be followed—it was downright “ambiguous” in many areas. You couldn’t work on the Sabbath, for example. That means no harvesting. But what, the professor asks, if you just want something to eat on the Sabbath and pick just enough grain for that purpose? Was that harvesting or not? Well, “a decision has to be made,” he says. What if you walk through the field and accidentally knock some grain off the stalks? Is that harvesting? Once again, “a decision has to be made,” and Pharisees were the ones to make such decisions—decisions on scenarios as picayune as possible—and impose them on others.

What is this with “a decision has to be made?” Nobody has to make such a decision—or rather, they do, but it can be the person deciding for himself. Few human urges are greater than the one to meddle in someone else’s business. “Make it your aim...to mind your own business,” Paul would write later. The Law wasn’t explicit? It was as explicit as it needed to be and was written that way on purpose.

Jesus has it in for the Pharisees in the Book of Matthew, points out the professor, because the purpose of the gospel is to paint him as the “Jewish messiah”—as though proving his credentials by picking fights with those running the show. Probably the most nasty portrayal of the Pharisees is not in Matthew at all, but in John (following the resurrection of Lazarus), but this does not conform to the professors thesis, so he leaves it unmentioned. And Mark, far from exonerating Pharisees, translates certain Hebrew words like ‘corban‘ so that their want of heart can be seen the more clearly. Still, Matthew has a collection of zingers. From the 23rd chapter of the book:

Then Jesus spoke to the crowds and to his disciples, saying: “The scribes and the Pharisees have seated themselves in the seat of Moses. Therefore, all the things they tell you, do and observe, but do not do according to their deeds, for they say but they do not practice what they say. They bind up heavy loads and put them on the shoulders of men, but they themselves are not willing to budge them with their finger.

All the works they do, they do to be seen by men, for they broaden the scripture-containing cases that they wear as safeguards and lengthen the fringes of their garments.

They like the most prominent place at evening meals and the front seats in the synagogues  and the greetings in the marketplaces and to be called Rabbi by men.

But you, do not you be called Rabbi, for one is your Teacher, and all of you are brothers. Moreover, do not call anyone your father on earth, for one is your Father, the heavenly One. Neither be called leaders, for your Leader is one, the Christ. But the greatest one among you must be your minister. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.“

...“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! because you give the tenth of the mint and the dill and the cumin, but you have disregarded the weightier matters of the Law, namely, justice and mercy and faithfulness. These things it was necessary to do, yet not to disregard the other things. Blind guides, who strain out the gnat but gulp down the camel!

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! because you cleanse the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside they are full of greediness and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisee, cleanse first the inside of the cup and of the dish, so that the outside of it may also become clean.

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! because you resemble whitewashed graves, which outwardly indeed appear beautiful but inside are full of dead men’s bones and of every sort of uncleanness. In the same way, on the outside you appear righteous to men, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! because you build the graves of the prophets and decorate the tombs of the righteous ones, and you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our forefathers, we would not have shared with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ Therefore, you are testifying against yourselves that you are sons of those who murdered the prophets.  Well, then, fill up the measure of your forefathers.”

 

The professor doesn’t take sides. He remains above the fray of “interpretations.” He is a “critical thinker.” Jay wasn’t. When I studied with Jay, if the answer to a question was “the scribes and Pharisees” he would NOT simply give the answer and move on, as I so often wished he would. He would spring up from his chair, strut around his apartment, nose in the air, pompous as could be, and act out the role! He knew hypocrites. He knew ones who loved lording it over others. This stuff goes right to the heart—it either instantly lodges there or it doesn’t. it is silly to try to pretend it is a matter of the head. The heart chooses what it wants—and then charges the head with deriving a convincing rationale for it.

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The Gospel of Ehrman According to Mark

The Professor lectures about the Gospel of Mark and he does so by ignoring Matthew, Luke, and John. He lectures as though those other books did not exist. It is perfectly harebrained to do it this way, but that is how he does it. He is a critical thinker and must not allow cross-contamination.

He notes that Mark stresses Jesus’ authority. He notes of chapter 1 and verse 16: “While walking alongside the Sea of Galillee, he saw Simon and Simon’s brother Andrew casting their nets into the sea, for they were fishermen. So Jesus said to them: “Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men.” And at once they abandoned their nets and followed him.” Jesus has authority, he says. “They’ve never laid eyes on him before.” He calls, and they drop everything to follow him.

Well, if you didn’t hamstring yourself with your scholarship, Mr. Professor, you wouldn’t come to such a ridiculous conclusion. I’ll know I’ve arrived as a Witness when I command the householder, “Come!” and he without question follows me to the Kingdom Hall, not even pausing to shut off the lawn mower. “Must...follow....Tom,” he will say as he stumbles by his bewildered wife and abandoned kids. Of course they’ve seen him before—he’s now giving them opportunity to join him in an intensive ministry. If you would read the other Gospels that somehow you think contaminate your research you would know that.

Jesus enters the synagogue to teach. This is only verse 21 of the first chapter, so indeed Mark does start off with a bang. He blows them away in the synagogue—they are “astounded at his way of teaching, for he was teaching them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.” He casts out demons, heals plenty of the sick, including even Simon’s mother-in-law, yet he tells those demons—his disciples, too—to keep quiet about his identity—‘Zip it,’ he says. ‘Keep quiet that he is the Christ? Why would he want them to do that?’ interjects the Professor, as though uncovering proof that Jesus is crazy. Well, it may be for the same reason that Bob Dylan checks into the hotel under an assumed name—so he can stay unmolested until he performs in concert before thousands.

The ploy doesn’t do Jesus any good, though. The Professor doesn’t mention it, but one healed leper pays no attention to his orders and blabs everywhere that he’s been healed—it creates such a sensation that “Jesus was no longer able to enter openly into a city, but he stayed outside in isolated places.” He messed up the Lord! They keep coming to him from all sides, we read. Jesus later did try to rest up, but it was in vain, for Simon “hunted him down”—“all are looking for you,” he says. You think it’s easy being the Christ? It’s not! All this in the first chapter.

Does the Professor remark on something that more appreciative persons never fail to note?—that when the leper observes, “Lord, if you just want to, you can make me clean” Jesus says, “I want to? Does he reflect upon that? Nope. He critically looks at the fabric of the garment, the stitching of the garment, even the lint of the garment, and never seems to realize that you can wear the garment to stay warm.

As though the people of chapter 1 do not exist, the Professor goes on to consider other people—people who give Jesus a hard time. His family thinks he’s gone out of his mind. (3:21) Mark, the Professor points out, does not contain the virgin birth accounts of Matthew and Luke, so he assumes that this gospel writer knows nothing about it. Well, how do you know that he was born at all, if you’re going to be so insistent that the story must all be in one place!? Does this inane kind of scholarship hold for any other historical figure—Alexander the Great, for instance, or Cleopatra?

Jesus teaches in his home town, says the Professor, and his neighbors who watched him grow up can’t get their heads around just who he thinks he is. The lecturer can’t get over this, but in fact it is a classic quirk of how anybody gets more respect from people who do not remember what a cute little baby he used to be—and when the jokester Ernie moved to another congregation, we sent him off at his going-away party with a cake to that effect—“A prophet is not without honor except in his home territory,” said the frosting. I mean, we sure found him to be a trip; maybe they could put up with him.

The leaders of his own people, the Jews, charge that he “expels demons by means of the ruler of the demons,” so they, along with his family and his neighbors, don’t know Jesus’ true identity, either. The Professor misses entirely the baseness of men when their position is threatened—these leaders are just well-meaning sincere guys to him who really are trying to understand just what is going on. And you know that something is happening but you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr. Scribe?

On and on the Professor goes, examining the minutia of the automobile and never realizing that you can climb in it and drive to to Boise, Idaho—I mention Boise, not for any reason unto itself but because for a time I played with the idea of a character named Ida Ho, who either cleaned up her act to become a Witness, or fell from grace away from it,  but I finally rejected the idea as too risqué for my people—it doesn’t take much to be too risqué for them—they take to heart the counsel to “let sexual immorality and every sort of uncleanness or greediness not even be mentioned among you, just as is proper for holy people; neither shameful conduct nor foolish talking nor obscene jesting.” Doesn’t bother the Professor, though—he mentions how he tells his undergrad students that Mark is called the Passion Gospel and by that he does not mean the kind of passion that goes on in the dorms on Friday night! Yes, yes, I get it—yuk yuk—but you almost wonder which passion he considers the most important as he strips away all that is meaningful about the Gospel for students who have paid good money for their college education, likely imagining that they will pick up something here that will help them in their quest for spirituality!

Oh, come on! Tom—you’re just jealous that he is a professor and you’re not.’ Well—maybe there is a little something to that—college professorship is one of the last occupations that the bean-counters have not yet ruined—but it doesn’t help to learn that Bart Ehrman the Professor, the Great Courses lecturer, was once a evangelical Christian who went apostate in their eyes and is now cashing in by putting a skeptical spin on what he once practiced because that is what the university crowd eats up. This—even given in my eyes—that the evangelicals naturally give birth to this kind of thing because most church teachings are not found in the Bible—it is the attempt to read them in that causes people to throw up their hands in despair of ever understanding the book—or do what the Professor does—milk it for incidentals to present at the university while he ignores the meaning.

He makes a few other quips, trying to make me mad. Explaining how messiah and christ mean the same thing and how they are titles and not surnames, he tells how he must teach his students that Jesus Christ is not the son of Joseph Christ and Mary Christ because they think that he is. He might as well let the impression stand, for he teaches them nothing more useful for building faith, which is the entire purpose of the Gospel. He marvels at that purpose, as though it is a waste of Mark’s talents—“the writer doesn’t claim to be writing an historically accurate biography in the modern sense, but an account of Jesus that reveals how his life and death brings ‘good news‘ to those willing to receive it.” If only Mark had landed a gig at the university so he could focus on stuff that didn’t matter!

Nobody knows who Jesus is, expounds the Professor—not his family, not his neighbors, not the religious leaders, not even his disciples, (6:51-52, 8:21) despite their instantly dropping everything to follow him they have no idea who he is. Even Jesus doesn’t seem to know who he is at the end, says the Professor, for he cries “My God, my God—why have you forsaken me?” Only half-way through the Book of Mark do some begin to get a clue as to his identity, starting with Peter (“You are the Christ”) but even then they are dense as all get-out.

“At almost the midway point of the Gospel comes the most interesting [to him] miracle in the entire narrative; an account of a man who is blind and who gradually regains his sight [8:22-26]. “[He] take[s] this as a symbolic expression of what will happen to the disciples, who gradually come to see who Jesus really is.” The Professor builds his theory off the fact that this is the only recorded miracle that is not instantaneous—it happens in stages. Now, this idea is not stupid—I kind of like it—but it is just an interpretation. This is why these doctor-of-divinity types are so annoying, trashing matters of real substance to spin their own speculative notions as though fact! It reminds me of the college course I took once because you had to have a certain number of electives; it, too, was a course on the Gospels, taught by a retired Baptist minister who commented on how back in his seminary days everyone called John the Apostle to the Idiots for the simple grammar he employed! The reason that the crowds were “astounded” with Jesus’ teachings is that he did NOT spin his own air-headed pontifications—he did NOT do what they were so used to.

If you write a report on William the Conquerer, do you take one source and one source only? If it is not in source A but it is in source B, do you assume that A and B would fight over it? What about this line from John 21:25: “There are also, in fact, many other things that Jesus did, which if ever they were written in full detail, I suppose the world itself could not contain the scrolls written.” You could write four Gospels never touching on the same fact, and this yo-yo would think it is four different people!

The Professor does give a reason for his critical approach of taking each gospel independent of the others. It is not crazy, however it does involve multiple assumptions, each one of which he treats as fact. ‘We can assume this, we can assume that’—he says of foundational points in a prior lecture. Essentially, (he doesn’t say it in these words) it is that early Christians were working-class, and you know how stupid they are—they don’t write books and teach in the university like he does. He even refers to the children’s game of whispering a story successively in each other’s ear to see how it changes over time, and when they did it to me in seventh grade, the story had even been purposefully changed before it reached my ears—I knew that because it consisted of mocking the teacher who started the ball rolling—and I would have felt silly passing that along so I changed it again! Besides, Mark was written decades after the events covered and it would be (at the time of lecture) ‘like recalling the details of the Johnson Presidential campaign,’ as though accompanying Christ would be of no more lasting significance to his disciples than working to elect a president!

I’m being excessively hard on this fellow and I am almost ashamed of myself. He is doing no more than what he said he would do—lecturing without regard to faith but only with regard to critical thinking. If he was doing it with any other author from Homer to Hawthorne, I would commend him. It is just that he is choosing to treat diamonds as salt that gets under my skin. It is far worse than when the Church of Christ fellow invited me into his home and I could see in a second that he truly was a student of the Bible—an instantly likable man of good humor, hospitality, no pretentiousness whatsoever—a man with multiple translations, and as we zeroed in on passage in Corinthians and he saw that I meant to read it aloud, he said in a minor panic: “No, no, let me read it—you’ll mess it up!” a retort that made both of us chuckle. Still, he was extracting reasons for faith out of the book, even if I did think he had some things backwards—he wasn’t stripping it of faith to extract the extraneous that he knew the university crowd would eat up.

Here is the Professor’s quip when speaking of Pax Romana: “I always tell my students that if there is a perfectly good English term for a concept, you are better off using the Latin term so everyone will know you’ve been to university.” It is just a quip but in that quip lies all the pretensions of our ridiculous times. “How can you believe, when you are accepting glory from one another and you are not seeking the glory that is from the only God?” says Jesus. (John 5:44)

Defending Jehovah’s Witnesses with style from attacks... in Russia, with the ebook ‘I Don’t Know Why We Persecute Jehovah’s Witnesses—Searching for the Why’ (free).... and in the West, with the ebook ‘TrueTom vs the Apostates!’ (free)

The Professor Explains the Pharisees—Blind Guides is what They Are

The professor of the recorded lecture series—who teaches religion at the university—comes to the topic of the Pharisees. He defines them as people who knew that God gave a Law to Israel and so that’s what they would focus on—following it! He points out that pharisee has a negative connotation today—that of ‘hypocrite’—but that was not true in their day—how can people who ‘obey the Law’ be looked at negatively? he marvels. “It’s as though 200 years from now ‘Episcopalian’ comes to have a tertiary meaning of ‘drunkard’,” he says.

He does not mention how that connotation came about—Jesus called them hypocrites repeatedly. Presumably he does not do this because he is a critical thinker who will make his own assessments and not rely upon the judgement of someone else.

The challenge for those who made it their mission to follow the law—and what a commendable mission it was in their eyes!—was that the Law was frustratingly vague, the professor points out. ‘For example, it said that you must do no work on the seventh day, but what is work? Well, there is work work, like when you go into the field on the seventh day just like you go on every other day—we would all probably agree that is work. But what if on the seventh day you suddenly get hungry and sneak into the field to grab a quick snack of grain—is that work? Or what if you walk through the field and knock some grain off the stalks—is that work (harvesting)?

The professor is doubtless anticipating what happens when Jesus’ disciples do just those things, but he makes no mention of this. No, he carries on as though these are perfectly valid questions that might stump any reasonable person. He is trying to make me mad. In fact, when Jesus deals with just that ‘violation’ of Law, he says in effect: ‘It would be nice if you fellows got the bigger picture:’

Jesus went through the grainfields on the Sabbath. His disciples got hungry and started to pluck heads of grain and to eat. At seeing this, the Pharisees said to him: “Look! Your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath.” He said to them: “Have you not read what David did when he and the men with him were hungry? How he entered into the house of God and they ate the loaves of presentation, something that it was not lawful for him or those with him to eat, but for the priests only? Or have you not read in the Law that on the Sabbaths the priests in the temple violate the Sabbath and continue guiltless? But I tell you that something greater than the temple is here.  However, if you had understood what this means, ‘I want mercy and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless ones.”

Of course! This is not a matter of the head—it is a matter of the heart. The Pharisees expanded the ‘no work’ law into infinite bits of minute applications, but parts of the Law dealing with love for God and neighbor—not so much with that. ‘You don’t blow the first away as nothing,’ he said, but to harp on the first and say nothing about the second was just too outrageous. See how he nails those characters in the 23rd chapter of Matthew:

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! because you give the tenth of the mint and the dill and the cumin, but you have disregarded the weightier matters of the Law, namely, justice and mercy and faithfulness. These things it was necessary to do, yet not to disregard the other things.” vs 23

I once studied with a young man named Jay. He was a hoot to study with because if the answer to the question was, ‘scribes and Pharisees,’ he wouldn’t just say ‘scribes and Pharisees’—he’d get up and prance around the apartment, nose in the air, acting out the role! He instantly spotted those guys for what they were.

He loved the follow-up verse, too: “Blind guides, who strain out the gnat but gulp down the camel!” and he would make motions with his hands to illustrate the size difference.

He liked a few more of Jesus’ pithy pushback sayings at those Pharisees—in fact, the liked all of them—dig out the whole chapter and read them yourself. He liked: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! because you cleanse the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside they are full of greediness and self-indulgence.”

He liked also: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! because you resemble whitewashed graves, which outwardly indeed appear beautiful but inside are full of dead men’s bones and of every sort of uncleanness. In the same way, on the outside you appear righteous to men, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.”

He liked them all and instantly got the sense of them, in a way that the professor does not. For him it is a fascinating contrast in how different ones reason.

Defending Jehovah’s Witnesses with style from attacks... in Russia, with the ebook ‘I Don’t Know Why We Persecute Jehovah’s Witnesses—Searching for the Why’ (free).... and in the West, with the ebook ‘TrueTom vs the Apostates!’ (free)