Dear Dr. Ehrman,
I know that you are a respected New Testament scholar who nonetheless either doubts or disbelieves the resurrection of Jesus because you are an agnostic. Given this, I am particularly interested in what you think about the resurrection.
In a 2006 debate with William Lane Craig about the resurrection of Jesus, you closed your side of the debate with the following statement (which is on page 29 of the transcript and 12/12 of the video clips, accessible through the link above):
Let me conclude by telling you what I really do think about Jesus’ resurrection. The one thing we know about the Christians after the death of Jesus is that they turned to their scriptures to try and make sense of it. They had believed Jesus was the Messiah, but then he got crucified, and so he couldn’t be the Messiah. No Jew, prior to Christianity, thought that the Messiah was to be crucified. The Messiah was to be a great warrior or a great king or a great judge. He was to be a figure of grandeur and power, not somebody who’s squashed by the enemy like a mosquito. How could Jesus, the Messiah, have been killed as a common criminal? Christians turned to their scriptures to try and understand it, and they found passages that refer to the Righteous One of God’s suffering death. But in these passages, such as Isaiah 53 and Psalm 22 and Psalm , the one who is punished or who is killed is also vindicated by God. Christians came to believe their scriptures that Jesus was the Righteous One and that God must have vindicated him. And so Christians came to think of Jesus as one who, even though he had been crucified, came to be exalted to heaven, much as Elijah and Enoch had in the Hebrew scriptures. How can he be Jesus the Messiah though, if he’s been exalted to heaven? Well, Jesus must be coming back soon to establish the kingdom. He wasn’t an earthly Messiah; he’s a spiritual Messiah. That’s why the early Christians thought the end was coming right away in their own lifetime. That’s why Paul taught that Christ was the first fruit of the resurrection. But if Jesus is exalted, he is no longer dead, and so Christians started circulating the story of his resurrection. It wasn’t three days later they started circulating the story; it might have been a year later, maybe two years. Five years later they didn’t know when the stories had started. Nobody could go to the tomb to check; the body had decomposed. Believers who knew he had been raised from the dead started having visions of him. Others told stories about these visions of him, including Paul. Stories of these visions circulated. Some of them were actual visions like Paul, others of them were stories of visions like the five hundred group of people who saw him. On the basis of these stories, narratives were constructed and circulated and eventually we got the Gospels of the New Testament written 30, 40, 50, 60 years later.
I’m curious, Dr. Ehrman, about why you find this scenario plausible. It immediately provokes several questions:
1. How were Jesus’ disciples able to find in the Scriptures prophecies of a Messiah who died accursed but who was then raised from the dead, when this perspective had alluded all Jews before them (including many who were far more educated)?
2. How were Jesus’ disciples able to convince other Jews that this radical interpretation was worth following (in the face of strenuous persecution from authorities) when the disciples had nothing to justify it but their visions?
3. Why do the New Testament documents go to such great lengths to portray the apostles as needing and providing evidence and proof if, as you say, it was the Scriptures and visions that led them to this conviction about Jesus being raised from the dead? In other words, if they truly believed He was the Righteous One of God as you say, why would they dishonor Him with such blatant lies?
4. Further to previous question, if you believe that people other than the apostles wrote the the New Testament, who lied about all the firsthand experiences – the apostles or those who wrote the New Testament?
5. If Christ was not raised, who knocked Paul off his horse and how did it happen that half the New Testament came to be a man who violently opposed to the message of Christ’s resurrection?
Without answers to these questions, it’s hard to believe that you have really put your scenario under the microscope of even your own critical thinking.