FtBCon 2: Bible Study (or Taking the Bible Seriously as Fiction: A Read-Along)

At noon today, California time (2pm Central) I’ll be drinking fine scotch, while teaching the people about the literary weirdness of the New Testament, in Bible Study (or Taking the Bible Seriously as Fiction: A Read-Along). Please grab your bible, tune in, and read along with me. (The link to the video feed is the “Official Session Page,” down the right margin of the Lanyrd event page.) I will not be taking questions during the show. But any questions you do have, post them here, and I’ll get to them all eventually (but please heed my comments policy).

Here is a select reading list for anyone who wants to dive further into this kind of thing:

And for beginners in New Testament Studies:



  1. Karlriffic says

    Is There a “Mark 16: Directors Extended Version” with all of the interpolations in one place?

  2. Will says

    Good talk. I agree with your interpretation of the fig tree incident. I had a related observation that i was wanting your opinion on. So I agree that this episode is really about the destruction of the temple and clearly intimates a post war understanding of jewish thought. But how do you interpret the statement by Jesus in Mk. 11.17? Particuarly the sentence, “My house shall be called a house for all the nations.” My feeling is that he is castigating Jews for events that actually happen in 66.

    “According to Josephus, the violence which began at Caesarea in 66 was provoked by Greeks of a certain merchant house sacrificing birds in front of a local synagogue.[18] The Roman garrison did not intervene and the long-standing Hellenistic and Jewish religious tensions took a downward spiral. In reaction, one of the Jewish Temple clerks Eliezar ben Hanania ceased prayers and sacrifices for the Roman Emperor at the Temple.” – wikipedia

    Do you think Jesus is made to foreshadow and rebuke this action by Eliezar ben Hanania when he mentions the “house of prayer for all nations”? It seems to fit the context of this pericope since historically this episode was one part in the chain of events that ultimately led to the war and the destruction of the temple. And the destruction of the temple is the main thing the author of Mark is addressing here. Also Jesus’ enemies in this part of Mark are the Jews of the temple cult (“And when the chief priests and scribes heard it, they kept looking for a way to kill him..” Mk11.18). Do you think this interpretation works? Thanks!

    • says

      Note that Mt. 11:17 is a quotation of scripture–in fact, a targum (which is like an Aramaic paraphrase of scripture; Jesus’ words match versions of this verse known to appear in targums from the period). So the wording is not Mark’s.

      But keeping that in mind, I think you are right, but in a more generic way: Mark is saying the Jews did not make the temple a temple for all nations as they were supposed to, but allowed it to become a vehicle of corruption. I suspect another point of Mark selecting this version of that line to put into Jesus’ mouth here might also be the double-entendre regarding what the actual house of God was: in Pauline (thus Markan) thought it was not that actual temple but the body of the church (each individual Christian is God’s temple). This is therefore a statement reflecting the Torah-free gospel: all nations can pray to god (i.e. become vessels of his spirit and thus his temple), so the Christians fulfilled this scripture, and the Jews did not, and that is why God switched temples from one to the other (abandoning that of the Jewish elite and inhabiting instead that of the Christian polity). But that’s just a literary hypothesis. You’ll want to also see what I discuss about this passage in On the Historicity of Jesus when that finally comes out (hopefully April).

      I don’t see enough evidence to confirm Mark even knew of the ben Hanania incident, much less was commenting on it. That doesn’t make it impossible, though, just unknowable. Most ancient history is frustrating that way.

  3. says


    I had to say to myself, repeatedly, “Of course! How did I miss that?” Especially with the “Beloved disciple”. So obvious once you see it! And Lazarus as the racing disciple – hilarious!

    I haven’t got around to reading the Mark section of “Hitler, Homer . . . ” (Hopscotched through the index, starting with Tacitus). I’ll read that tonight.

  4. says

    A tangent from the video:

    It’s mentioned that Barabbas was imprisoned with people who had committed murder during “the insurrection”. It sounds like a specific insurrection is being referenced.

    Is this an accurate reading of the original text? Or does it simply talk about an unspecified insurrection?

    If it’s a specific insurrection, which is intended? Is it referring to some actual historical event? If so, what does that imply about when the story is set?

    • says

      Unknowable, IMO.

      The use of the definite article can imply a specific insurrection is meant, but whether that’s in a literary sense (i.e. as a metaphor, “the rebellion of the Jewish elite against God”) or a historical one (i.e. an actual historical insurrection) is hard to discern, and even if the latter, whether Mark is speaking anachronistically to make a point (i.e. the Jewish War, which actually occurred decades after the event here being fictionalized) or writing good historical fiction instead (i.e. having in mind some insurrection that occurred in the 30s) is even harder to discern, and then even if we imagine the latter, which insurrection he then meant is impossible to discern (there were lots of events that could be called “acts of rebellion” under Pilate, but none really all that significant, and nothing Judea-wide). Matthew erased this part of his description (Barabbas is “notable” but not said for what). John replaced it with a new one wholly unrelated (Barabbas becomes a mere robber). Luke tries to specify an incident but in so doing admits he couldn’t identify one (“[imprisoned] for a certain insurrection made in the city, and for murder”–here Luke limits the “rebellion” to something confined to an occurrence within Jerusalem, and makes murder something that wasn’t a part of it but a separate deed, but by using the indefinite he clearly could not confirm any actual historical event, and thus genericked it up to fit any number of “acts of rebellion” Luke would know of for this time from Josephus).

  5. baryogenesis says

    Really enjoyed that. I followed your readings with the 2 bibles I have, a Gideons (which, like yours was a hotel room copy) and a New English Bible, which seemed very close to your New American edition. An endless subject, but relevant to that video I was wondering what your opinions were on Morton Smith’s Secret Mark passages. Also, after reading many introductory-NT books, I must say that Ehrman’s Lost Christianities has been most edifying and enjoyable.

    • says

      Ehrman’s books that summarize existing mainstream work for a lay audience are good and highly recommended. He only went awful when he tried something novel without putting any competent effort into it. (Although I have heard people express problems with his The New Testament intro textbook, I didn’t thoroughly vet that, so can’t comment.)

      Regarding Smith’s controversial “discovery” of a lost passage from Mark, I would say it’s around 60-70% likely to be a forgery, either by Smith or someone else from the modern era, and if not that, then 70-80% likely to be a medieval forgery. Those are rough estimates. In either case, not anything we can rely on. (Note that all arguments for its authenticity are fallacious, in some cases hopelessly so, like someone claiming to know the chemical composition of the ink from merely looking at a photograph, which, for anyone who has actually worked in the field of paleography, like myself, is wildly ridiculous; meanwhile, arguments for forgery are not fallacious, but at worst only weak.)

  6. brianpansky says

    one thing i thought was odd was that the forging in the bible seemed a bit incompetent, where the edited stuff would contradict other stuff (even in that one case the sentence right before it)..shouldn’t the forgers have not included the stuff that contradicted them? there is a lot i don’t know about how these are put together, and i suspect i’m just missing something…

    • says

      Ancient Christian scribes were notoriously unintelligent. Evidence abounds, some of it beyond embarrassing. It’s also the opinion of experts in scribal work that Christian texts mostly did not begin to be copied by fully professional scribes until the 3rd century, and even then not commonly until the 4th. Before that, copying was usually performed by amateurs, and the evident mistakes and other effects of that fact have been documented (esp. by the great manuscript specialist Barbara Aland).

    • says

      Thanks. Briefly…

      “Asking if Jesus existed is like asking if Socrates existed.”

      This is a common foot in mouth. We have tons more evidence for Socrates than for Jesus–indeed, Socrates serves as a very good example of what’s so weird about the data we don’t have for Jesus. I extensively discuss this point in On the Historicity of Jesus (I have a whole section devoted to Socrates). (Before anyone asks again, OHJ is expected maybe April; I’m still waiting for the publisher to send me the galleys.)

      we do largely know that Matthew was written by the Apostle Matthew, Mark written based on testimony from Peter, Luke written by a doctor who interviewed eyewitnesses and investigated their claims, and John by the Apostle John.

      I will categorize this as lying.

      Additionally, the separate books of Peter, John, James, and Jude were written by eye witnesses.

      None of which clearly reference a historical Jesus. Except 2 Peter, which has been well established is a forgery (not written by the same author as 1 Peter, nor likely even in the first century).

      Meanwhile, that various people centuries later cite the Gospels and unsourced rumor for their knowledge of Jesus is worthless as evidence, in fact it’s conspicuously odd as evidence, since it means there was nothing else but late hagiographic documents and rumors whose authors and sources and methods were never honestly known, even then, much less now.

      And so on.

      I can see little point in responding to delusional garbage like this. This is not serious scholarship. It’s dishonest, inaccurate, and illogical. Fortunately, most scholars in the field would agree with me on that point.

    • says

      It’s a little more complicated than that, but yes, the scapegoat was driven to its death miles from the city. That is, of course, exactly the fate implied for Barabbas: he will go to the pit, just like all others who choose rebellion against God instead of salvation in Christ. I discuss the sources on the scapegoat ritual (and this part in particular) in On the Historicity of Jesus (expected in April).

  7. Rain says

    Well that was pretty good. Just like it says: Taking the Bible Seriously as Fiction: A Read-Along. Not: Taking the Bible Seriously as Fiction: A Read-Along, rimshot please, badda bing badda boom, take my wife please. It’s actually literally taking the Bible seriously as fiction. Albeit in a silly and funny way what with the booze and the funny jokes and whatnot. Not a bad show at all. A must see for atheists who don’t know they read the Bible too literally, as they are often accused of doing, lol. Well it’s true. Atheists do read the Bible too literally, but not how you would expect. Two thumbs up.

  8. dwlange says

    A couple of questions about Lazarus. First, I’d never heard that “the disciple whom Jesus loved” might be Lazarus, but it makes perfect sense! Thanks for that. At the end of John’s gospel, the writer identifies this disciple with the one who testifies to these things and wrote them down. That says to me that the disciple whom Jesus loved is the author of the gospel. Is this a mistaken impression? Or is the author, in a kind of sideways fashion, claiming to be Lazarus?

    My second question is about the parable in Luke. I know you’ve written about links between Luke and Josephus, and there are a bunch of undeniable connections between the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus and Josephus’ Discourse to the Jews Concerning Hades. My question is: Is Luke getting his material from Josephus, or is it the other way around?

    Thanks for your insights.

    • says

      That says to me that the disciple whom Jesus loved is the author of the gospel.

      Rather, the authors’ (plural) source document. That is, “we” (who are not Lazarus) recorded what “he” wrote, which means the authors of John are claiming Lazarus wrote some document, which is not this Gospel (the one “we” are writing), but one they are using as a source (conveniently not saying exactly for which parts). All bullshit, of course. Fabricating sources like that was common in ancient mythography–Alan Cameron devotes a whole chapter to the practice in his Greek Mythography in the Roman World.

      On Luke’s parable: I don’t know about influence from Josephus (do you know a journal article that discusses that? I would love to have the citation), but the general view I encountered in the field is that Luke is adapting a common Jewish parable that is related to a fable common to several cultures of the period (in On the Historicity of Jesus I cite the scholarship finding the closest parallels in Egyptian and Greek lore).

    • says

      Where is a mention of Lazarus there? Perhaps you can quote the line or paragraph from that article you have in mind.

      (Or do you just mean the generic thesis that Luke used Josephus? That doesn’t entail every passage in Luke derives from Josephus.)

    • dwlange says

      There’s no mention of Lazarus in the article. I just meant the generic thesis that Luke used Josephus. And of course I understand that doesn’t mean everything in Luke comes from Josephus. But I was surprised that the article didn’t mention what I think is a pretty obvious connection between the Parable and the Discourse. So I wondered if that was another example of Luke getting stuff from Josephus or something else. Do we have other sources that suggest the details in the parable and in Josephus (such as “bosom of Abraham” and “great chasm”) derive from a common source?

    • says

      Ah. I get you. I just haven’t examined that parallel myself, so I couldn’t comment on it. It’s not in the literature so far as I found (although I haven’t scoured Krenkel or the others to see if they said anything on it).

  9. says

    This was extremely fun and educational. I’d love it if you could make such a Bible study a regular feature. I’m happy to report my NRSV had at least the first unusual interpolation to the end of Mark. Though I did notice it specifically states the two Lazarus’ are not supposed to be the same. Ah well. *downs screwdriver*

  10. afzal says

    Is it true that R Pervo was sackt by his university for conduct unbecoming…not that I’m impuning him, mind.

    • says

      Yes. In a case of fabulously bizarre irony, a man named Pervo confessed to trafficking in child pornography (it was never disclosed whether that meant children or teens, but a felony in any case, for which he did time). That has nothing to do with the quality of his knowledge and research in his field (his work continues to be published under peer review and well respected). But it is good reason not to invite him round for dinner.

  11. Phillip Hallam-Baker says

    It would be nice if someone would do a Gore Vidal type revisionist history of Roman times.

    Was Nero really such a monster or was the reason he got the chop that he lost too many wars?

    We are viewing the history that has survived from histories written under the emperors who survived the civil wars that were selected by Christian monks with an entirely different agenda.

  12. lotusthought says

    Hello Dr. Carrier. In light of your upcoming mysticist book, I think it might help increase sales by showing your position is not as outrageous and crackpot as many people seem to think, by engaging and refuting either both, or just one of the links below:



    Making a blog post on these links might help books sales because it will show that the mythicist position is credible and therefore it’s worthwhile to invest money in such a book, rather than making people think they are wasting money on fringe, conspiracy theory that is dismissed by 99.9% of Ancient/Biblical “Historicists”; but if not, at the very least, making a blog post on either one or both of the links above will give you material to make a new freethought blog post about.

    If you can refute both links with reason and evidence, might I urge you to take on the gotquestions one. Refuting both would be nice, but you might not have time for both.


    • says

      This has already been done. Tons of times. See here and here and here. You are clearly new to the game.

      What will prove my book worthy of support is not whether I answer some random hack web rant, but the fact that my mythicist book passed formal peer review and will be published by a major respected biblical studies press (Sheffield-Phoenix, a publishing house at the University of Sheffield). Proving History likewise underwent, and passed, a formal academic peer review. Unlike the blog links you mention. So please consult real scholarship before asking questions about this.

      Reference the above links for the details, but in summary:

      (8) Paul’s authentic letters (and their authentic content) never clearly reference an earthly Jesus, but only ever clearly reference a cosmic Jesus known only through revelations and scripture. The rest are forgeries. Ditto the other epistles: some are known forgeries (and all of this, BTW, is the mainstream view), the rest make no clear reference to an earthly Jesus. The passages where Paul mentions brothers of the Lord is just as unclear as everything else, because Paul says all baptized Christians are brothers of the Lord, and he never says anyone referred to that way was a biological brother of Jesus, rather than just a baptized Christian. This is all old news, BTW, so if you didn’t know this, you are clearly not up on this debate.

      (7) Both Nazareth and Bethlehem were predicted sources of the messiah in scripture (as Mathew, the first to combine them, explicitly says), so it is not surprising someone invented stories to try and satisfy both prophecies, especially a Gospel known to duplicate prophetic fulfillments (as Matthew is). Moreover, Jesus was not originally called a Nazarethan, the name for someone from Nazareth, but a Nazôraian, a word wholly unconnected with the name Nazareth and which even some early Christians admitted meant something else. See Proving History, index, “Nazareth.” This is also old news.

      (6) Everything the “listserv” says about the connection of the baptism with Jesus is false. See Proving History, index, “baptism.”

      (5) All mentions of Jesus in Josephus were added over a century after Josephus wrote, by Christians. Josephus thus never mentioned him. This is very old news. See my past blogs on it here and here.

      (4) The passage in Tacitus is probably also an insertion (see my peer reviewed academic article on that fact, reproduced as the last chapter in HHBC), but even if authentic, almost certainly derives from Christians citing the Gospels (through an interrogation of Christians performed by Tacitus’s best friend Pliny just a few years before Tacitus wrote). It therefore cannot be cited as corroborating them. If the Gospels are false, so is the reference in Tacitus. More on that in the aforementioned article, and the links above.

      (3) The James ossuary inscription has been tampered with (confirmed by court of law), has likely been partly forged (confirmed by several experts), and does not identify its occupant as our Jesus, yet Jesus was a common name. Contrary to what the listserv entry says, the courts did not rule the inscription authentic (or confirm any experts were lying), they ruled there was insufficient evidence to prove Oded Golan forged it. It remains deeply suspect, and is too generic to be known of Christian origin. It is therefore evidence of nothing.

      (2) Christianity became a world religion centuries later, therefore Jesus existed? Please. Hopefully you would not fall for this argument. By that reasoning, the angels Gabriel (mythic founder of Islam) and Moroni (mythic founder of Mormonism) existed, as did the Jewish Patriarchs (even though most mainstream scholars agree they are mythical). In point of fact, Christianity remained an extremely small, fringe, nearly failed sect for over a century before it gained any popularity, long after anyone could check any claims about Jesus. See Not the Impossible Faith, esp. chapter 18.

      (1) The crucifixion is no more likely to be true because it was embarrassing than the castration of the god Attis is to be true because it was even more embarrassing. The whole logic of this argument is fundamentally fallacious, and refuted by too many counter-examples. See Proving History, index, “Criterion of Crucifixion.”

      The other link just stacks up more falsehoods: Thallus never mentioned Jesus (I proved this in a peer reviewed academic article, also reproduced in HHBC); Pliny never says Jesus was an earthly man (and even if he did, he was told all he knows by a Christian who would simply be repeating the Gospels by then; likewise all other references, which come decades or centuries after him, e.g. Lucian); the Talmud was written centuries too late, and places Jesus a hundred years before Pilate and well before Roman rule in Judea (a fact even harder for a thesis of historicity to explain); and the apocryphal Gospels are so obviously fictions, anyone citing them for history is being silly.

      There just isn’t any overwhelming evidence Jesus existed. The evidence there is cannot in fact even be called good.

      But if want to argue the point, wait for my forthcoming book On the Historicity of Jesus.

  13. Michael Macrossan says

    You give a reason for the parable of Lazarus and the rich man that I hadn’t exactly heard before. I thought the parable was an answer to the question: “If Jesus rose from the dead, why ween’t the Jews, or Scribes and pharisees convinced? How come there is still a Jewish religion that doesn’t recognize Jesus”? I think this implied question is answered in other places in the Gospels as well – stubbornness, willful blindness, inability to understand parables which were deliberately obscure etc, so yet another answer doesn’t seem out of place.

    The ending of the story of Lazarus, says “they” have the prophets and Abraham, which identifies “they” as the Jews, and “they” wouldn’t believe even if someone (i.e. Jesus) came back from the dead – geddit?

    Maybe this question is close to the question you say it answers but I don’t think it is the same question as yours.

    • says

      Correct. Note that “the Jews, Scribes and pharisees” never saw the risen Jesus, i.e. he did not visit them, just as Lazarus did not visit the brothers of the rich man. The parable is saying the reasons are the same: “if they will not believe the prophets, neither would they have believed Jesus if he appeared to them,” thus trying to answer the obvious argument that if Jesus really rose from the dead, he would have appeared to persuade everyone–otherwise, in what sense could his resurrection be a sign of anything, if no one of any significance got to witness it?

  14. Andrew Brown says

    I’m ashamed to admit that, until this video, I really thought there were only three different endings to Mark. And I’m disappointed (but not surprised) to learn that Nestle-Aland does not even list them all.

    This kind of “free” manuscript tradition over the centuries needs to be stressed more, I think. These guys were not treating the texts as “holy scripture,” but as stories that they could change at will (since no one — they thought — would ever know the difference). I have no reason to believe the situation was any different in the first century.

    The John/Lazarus stuff was good, too. And here I was thinking James Charlesworth was one of the “better” Jesus scholars. They really are all nothing more than apologists at their core, aren’t they?

    • says

      This kind of “free” manuscript tradition over the centuries needs to be stressed more, I think.

      I concur. I didn’t even go into all the interpolations in Luke-Acts in Codex Bezae, most of which the Aland text ignores even though they claim to use it–and pretty much all experts in the community are well aware of this, because the variants in Bezae are written and talked about constantly, warranting even entire conferences. That manuscript shows, cover to cover, how freely they felt leave to alter the text of scripture (I give a few examples in On the Historicity of Jesus). And I may have mentioned how scribes inserted the spearing in John into the crucifixion narrative of Matthew as another example. And it’s well known the Gospel of John we have is not the original: it has been heavily altered, with passages missing, added, and out of order. That’s such mainstream knowledge within the field that the leading texts on John openly discuss it and center their entire commentary around it, one even declares it in the title. Yet this information doesn’t get broadcast to the public.

  15. Andrew Brown says

    Regarding Jesus cursing the fig tree when it wasn’t fig season (in the first part of the video), the locus classicus for rationalizing this myth belongs to F.F. Bruce, who actually did research on real fig trees in Palestine, and surmised Mark “knew what he was talking about” — because the absence of small knobs called “taqsh” on fig trees indicates that figs won’t grow that season. So Jesus saw this and Mark dutifully wrote it down, based on a real incident from the life of Kurios Christos Sotor.

    The other miracle is the cursing of the barren fig tree (Mk. xi. ‘2 ff.), a stumblingblock to many. They feel that it is unlike Jesus, and so someone must have misunderstood what actually happened, or turned a spoken parable into an acted miracle, or something like that. Some, on the other hand, welcome the story because it shows that Jesus was human enough to get unreasonably annoyed on occasion. It appears,however, that a closer acquaintance with fig trees would have prevented such misunderstandings. ‘Thetime of figs was not yet,’ says Mark, for it was just before Passover, about six weeks before the fully formed fig appears. The fact that Mark adds these words shows that he knew what he was talking about.When the fig leaves appear about the end of March they are accompanied by a crop of small knobs, called taqsh by the Arabs, a sort of forerunner of the real figs. These taqsh are eaten by peasants and others when hungry. They drop off before the real fig is formed. But if the leaves appear unaccompanied by taqsh, there will be no figs that year. So it was evident to our Lord, when He turned aside to see if there were any of these taqsh on the fig tree to assuage His hunger for the time being, that the absence of the taqsh meant that there would be no figs when the time for figs came. For all its fair show of foliage, it was a fruitless and hopeless tree.’

    That’s an MA and Fellow of the British Academy talking there, folks.

    This is going in my file of “most ridiculous apologetics by supposedly reputable scholars,” right alongside James Charlesworth’s “Lazarus Can’t be the Beloved Disciple Because We All Know Resurrected Men Can’t Run Very Fast” apologetic.

    • says

      Right. Bruce is engaging in fallacious and hardly credible Christian apologetics that does nothing but abuse the Greek grammar and context of the passage.

      It should be noted that in fact taqsh were called “early fruit,” not “fruit.” If Mark knew the difference (and Bruce’s argument requires that he would have), then he would have used the correct term. But in fact Mark explains the absence as simply it not being the season for it. He does not explain the absence by saying there should have been early fruit buds in the pre-season to eat, or that Jesus could tell that it wasn’t going to fruit, or any other statement that would suggest what Bruce wants. Rather, Jesus expected there to be something to eat (that’s why he goes looking for the tree; had there been taqsh, he would have eaten them, not cursed the tree for giving him nothing to eat), even though Mark says there shouldn’t have been anything there to eat (“he found nothing but leaves because it was not the season of figs”). Hence Matthew rightly drops the absurdity by not mentioning it wasn’t the season for fruiting (so Matthew knew what Mark meant far better than Bruce did). It was evidently embarrassing to Matthew–and he knew Judea better than Mark did. Note also how Luke “fixes” the whole story to make more sense by converting it into a parable instead (and changes the meaning somewhat): Luke 13:6-9. It’s not that Mark was an idiot. It’s that he didn’t expect the story to be read literally, the way Matthew and Luke appear to do (or pretend to do), much less Bruce.

  16. Andrew Brown says

    I like how pre-1960s Jesus scholars like F.F. Bruce were not at all embarrassed to use the term “our Lord” when referring to Jesus. They didn’t try to hide their Divinity degrees. Today’s Jesus scholars, of course, want their readers to think they are serious Classical Historians, and wouldn’t think of using such an explicitly churchy phrase.