Bart Ehrman on Judas and Jesus
In 2006, Bart Ehrman published a strange little book - The Lost Gospel of Judas Iscariot. He spent about as much time commenting on the history of its manuscript as he did on its text. He spent even more time discussing the canonical gospels and how they do or do not relate to the new one. Since he didn’t include the (brief) text of the Gospel of Judas Iscariot, the reader cannot make any independent evaluations of it. But this new gospel inspired Ehrman to create a new theory of Judas and Jesus. Fortunately, even without knowing the new gospel, we can evaluate Ehrman’s new theory.
Ehrman’s New Theory of Jesus and Judas
Ehrman makes a radical distinction between what Jesus preached to his disciples, and what he preached to the public. According to Professor Ehrman, in public Jesus was simply an apocalyptic prophet, preaching that the world was about to end: “God would soon intervene in the course of history to overthrow the powers of evil and establish a new Kingdom here on earth. The Son of Man was soon to arrive in judgment” (p. 164). But in private, he explained to his 12 apostles – including Judas – that he himself was the messiah/Son of Man that God would make king of his new Kingdom. Jesus told the 12 apostles that he will appoint them to rule over the 12 tribes of Israel.
Jesus did nearly all his preaching in and around Galilee. According to Ehrman, his audiences only considered him to be a prophet. Furthermore, “Jesus was probably unknown both to the Roman authorities living in the south and to the Jewish leaders in charge of Jerusalem and its Temple.”
Jesus decided to go to the Jerusalem Temple to celebrate Passover. As Ehrman noted, “the Roman authorities knew full well that at Passover there could be rebellion in the air, and they took all measures necessary to quell any potential riots.” The high priest, who ruled over Jerusalem, was also quite aware of these dangers. Then, “Jesus came into town and caused a minor ruckus in the Temple” (p. 164).
This is bizarre way to describe Jesus’ purported “cleansing” of the Temple by expelling the money changers and those doing business there – i.e., those selling unblemished sacrificial animals. This “minor ruckus” would have completely disrupted operations of the Temple, at a time when well over 100,000 people were waiting to offer their sacrifices. Most of these were zealous pilgrims from the diaspora. Disrupting their celebration of Passover would have triggered a profound reaction.
This “ruckus” sets the stage for Ehrman’s theory: “The Jewish leaders in charge of the Temple …. decided to have Jesus taken out of the way. But there had to be a legal proceeding… And he wasn’t preaching open rebellion. The Jewish authorities needed some charge to pin on him, something that would make the Romans sit up and take notice. This is where Judas Iscariot came into the picture… Judas gave them what they needed: Jesus had privately been calling himself the future king” (p. 164).
(Note that Ehrman’s claim that “there had to be a legal proceeding,” is simply false. The Romans killed other self-proclaimed messiahs without any legal proceeding. In fact, there was no legal code to apply. The governor or prefect was the law. If the priests convinced him that Jesus threatened the peace, the prefect would have killed him.)
Ehrman states the following paradox: “[Jesus] was executed for calling himself King of the Jews, even though he never called himself that publicly.” Judas’ betrayal consisted of telling the high priest the great secret that Jesus only divulged to the 12 apostles – that he was the Son of David, the messiah, who God would appoint as King of his new kingdom.
What do the Gospels Say?
I will focus on the First Gospel - Matthew. The other gospels tell basically the same story, and I don’t want to get lost in details involving inconsistencies across them.
The first two chapters of Matthew are designed to show that Jesus was really the Son of David, the messiah. That’s why Matthew provides a highly dubious genealogy for Jesus (inconsistent with Luke’s), and why he strains to show that Jesus of Nazareth was really born in Bethlehem, the city of David. Matthew wants to “prove” that Jesus fits all the prophecies for the messiah. Luke does likewise, and their “proofs” are incompatible. This stress on Jesus being the messiah seems inconsistent with Ehrman’s theory that only the 12 apostles knew this, and that everyone else thought he was just a prophet. But these stories were created after the fact. Let’s take a more chronological approach.
The first time we see Jesus is when he comes to John the Baptist. John purportedly protested: “I need to be baptized by you, yet you come to me?” Nonetheless, John baptized Jesus. Then “the heavens opened,” and “a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased’” (3:17). That is, the very first time Jesus makes an appearance God announces – publicly, and very dramatically - that Jesus is his son. This is wildly inconsistent with Ehrman’s claim that no one knew this, and that the public only thought Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet.
Jesus was tempted in the desert, after which he recruited Peter, his brother Andrew, and the Zebedee brothers. Then he went throughout Galilee “proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people. So his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought to him all the sick… and he cured them. And great crowds followed him.” (4:23f).
Now “proclaiming the good news” is what you’d expect from Ehrman’s theory. But Jesus attracted crowds because he miraculously healed every kind of disease. This has nothing to do with being an apocalyptic prophet. Very few prophets performed such miracles. It seems obvious that the crowds were far less interested in the apocalypse than in his miracles. They thought of Jesus as a miracle-maker, not as an apocalyptic prophet, though these were not mutually exclusive.
Next Jesus delivered a very lengthy Sermon on the Mount. Matthew tells us, “the crowds were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes” (7:28f). Even when Jesus was only talking and not performing miracles, the crowd did not consider him an apocalyptic prophet per se, but as someone with “authority.”
Jesus then goes throughout Galilee performing more miraculous healings, often accompanied by crowds. Finally, he comes to the Gadarenes and two demoniacs encounter him. They immediately identify Jesus as “Son of God,” and say “Have you come here to torment us before the time?” (8:29). The demons obviously knew Jesus was not just an apocalyptic prophet. But apart from a couple of possessed shepherds, no one apparently witnessed this.
Then Jesus performs lots more miracles. He even empowers his disciples to perform miracles. Matthew tells us, “Many crowds followed [Jesus], and he cured all of them, and he ordered them not to make him known” (12:15f). Make him known as WHAT? Certainly not an apocalyptic prophet, as Ehrman’s theory would suggest.
Matthew is still vague. But after Jesus heals someone who was both blind and mute, “All the crowds were amazed and said, ‘Can this be the Son of David?’” (12:23f). Contrary to Ehrman’s claim, they thought he was the Son of David, the messiah. But Ehrman’s theory states that only Jesus’s 12 apostles knew this.
There are lots more miracles, and Jesus also puts the Pharisees and Sadducees in their place. But Passover was approaching, and he headed to Jerusalem. He arranges to make his Triumphant Entry into Jerusalem. The crowds went wild, shouting: “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” (21:9).
What’s going on here? First of all, Ehrman tells us that Jesus was unknown in Jerusalem. But Matthew tells us he attracted huge crowds as soon as got there. These were not people from Galilee – the only people who had any knowledge of Jesus, according to Professor Ehrman. More importantly, all these people knew Jesus was the Son of David! The crux of Professor Ehrman’s new theory is that only the 12 apostles knew this. This was supposedly the great secret that Judas divulged. Yet according to Matthew and the other gospels, everyone knew it.
Even a casual examination of the gospels show that Professor Ehrman’s new theory is ludicrous. The gospels show that Jesus was not merely considered an apocalyptic prophet, and that his fame extended far beyond Galilee into Jerusalem. Furthermore, all these people knew that Jesus was the messiah, the Son of David, the future king of God’s new kingdom. Virtually everything about Ehrman’s new theory is clearly contradicted.
Now Ehrman might claim that Matthew was lying up a storm and that all this was false. That is certainly a far better theory than the one he proposed. But as he himself acknowledges, the gospels, including the new Gospel of Judas, say very little of Judas. Furthermore, the different sources contradict each other. So in order to support his new theory, built around the flimsiest of evidence, Professor Ehrman would have to reject multiply attested claims which are at the heart of the gospels.
Professor Ehrman is the best known New Testament scholar in America - possibly the world. His errors are typical of the breed. They have a remarkable aptitude for ignoring facts they find inconvenient. This is especially true when it comes to Paul. Ehrman’s new theory of Judas is remarkable for contradicting so much of “gospel truth.” But to the best of my knowledge, no New Testament scholar has pointed that out.