Obviously I’m going through a Bart D Ehrman phase. It’s not because I agree with him most of the time or that I find him a master debater (sorry, had to say it). It’s because he’s the only public intellectual that I can think of at the top of my head that has a genuine passion for teaching.
Because Ehrman’s area of expertise is the Bible, specifically the New Testament and early Christianity, people naturally have strong opinions about the subject. Some people, specifically atheists but a few Christians aren’t exempt, like to use this subject as a way to “trigger” their opponents.
This is a fad on YouTube. The “Intellectual Dark Web” (IDW), or guys that found fame on the internet during the “alt-Right” hay day (people like Sam Harris, Jordan Peterson, Ben Shapiro, etc.) perfected the science of “triggering” (also known as “owning the libs”) and many online personalities have attempted to emulate it, including leftists with varying degrees of success. It’s a way of weaponizing information.
This phenomenon is not exclusive to discussions on the Bible, religion, and politics, but even movies and fucking geography!
Because “owning the line” is currency on YouTube, this has led to many quaks pretending to be experts littering the platform and distracting us away from those trying to present information in good faith.
Just because an opinion triggers someone, that doesn’t give it more credence. But that appears to be sound logic in some circles. Even if the opinion is true, if presented in a way that’s designed to give offense, that doesn’t make the one with the opinion more noble or virtuous…it makes you an asshole.
I’ll say this though: Jesus at least dabbled in asceticism. Any hard evidence for this? No. And none will ever turn up. BUT the two earliest accounts of Jesus’s life, the Gospel of Mark and the hypothetical “Q source” (which survives in the Gospels of Luke and Matthew) mention Jesus turning to the wilderness after his baptism from John the Baptist.
John the Baptist’s existence can be independently confirmed by Josephus, a first century Jewish historian. This is partly why it is universally agreed upon that the baptism of Jesus by John is a real historical event. The other reason why historians believe this is due to the criterion of embarrassment, which simply means that Jesus’s associations with John the Baptist would have been well known enough that it had to of been accounted for by early Christian writers, despite Jesus’s superiority to John.
It’s difficult to establish any degree of certainty from this period. Was John the Baptist an ascetic? It certainly appears that he had those tendencies from the surviving texts. It’s has even been suggested that he was an Essene, a “semi-ascetic” Jewish sect from the first century. Could Jesus have been a follower of John? We know that they met at least once, and the Gospels (whatever their historical worth) say that Jesus immediately did something ascetic-like after that meeting.
I like questions like these because it helps contextualize this era. I personally think that Jesus did ascetic-like things and might’ve ran with a few ascetic groups. But I don’t think he thought of himself ascetic or even monastic. Like I said, the historical information contained in the Gospels are dubious and hard facts will likely never appear, but I think it’s important to look at the language of the Gospels.
Mark and the “Q” source (or possible sources) seem to address a rural audience, meaning that Jesus likely focused his mission on the poor or “working class”. There are obvious problems with this assumption, the main one being that the entire New Testament is written in Koine Greek while the poor in Galilee and Judea, including Jesus, spoke Aramaic (plus the Gospels are written 40 years after the crucifixion of Jesus). How much of Jesus’s message was changed between his death and the written accounts is impossible to determine. Despite these problems though, I do think that Mark and Q are more than likely correct in Jesus’s focus.
So as I’ve said before, I think that Jesus was a religious-populist figure, and as we often find in populist movements, leaders often take a “postmodern” turn by becoming (as Apostle Paul later found out) “all things to all people”. This is why so many people can have so many different interpretations on what happened.
I was watching Bart Ehrman debate some dude, forgot who, and he mentioned the non-canonical early Christian text, Apocalypse of Peter (never read it). The text describes heaven and hell, with descriptions of hell being far more creative than those of heaven. Point being, as Ehrman explains (paraphrasing): “there are only so many ways to describe eternal bliss”, while the imagination on eternal damnation knows no bounds.
It’s not really a revolutionary observation, I know, but that’s true in all our storytelling: “heaven” is a place of temporary stability before “hell” comes along and propels the plot forward. Therefore much of the creative energy behind a story lies in the “hell” of it all.
In other words, story is conflict.
But I think Ehrman’s statement is also a reflection on the nature of language. I’ve always found that imaginative descriptions of dread, anger, depression, anxiety, etc. to be far more creative and rewarding than depictions of bliss. Heaven, beauty, bliss, etc lie in the realm of the sublime, and therefore transcend the possibilities of language.
However, that might just be a reflection of my own deranged mind.