According to the two oldest sources on the life of Jesus…the Gospel of Mark and the hypothetical Q Source(s) theoretically preserved in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke…the very first thing that happens is Jesus’s baptism by John the Baptist. The existence of this apocalyptic preacher, often thought of as the forerunner of Jesus, is independently confirmed by Josephus later in the first century.
This has led many scholars to believe that Jesus was a disciple of the Baptizer before starting his own ministry. The baptism by John is also considered one of only two events that nearly every scholar believes actually happened in Jesus’s life (the other being the crucifixion). Reasons for believing this is simple: if followers of Jesus really believed he was god, why would early Christians have included stories that made him appear subservient to John?
However, if the synoptic Gospels are any indication, Jesus’s theology would have differed significantly from John’s. John seemingly advocated for an ascetic lifestyle that lacked any hint of universalism that characterized Jesus’s ministry. At some point, it would appear, there was a philosophical break between John and Jesus, possibly caused by John’s execution by Herod Antipas (an event also recorded by Josephus). This break could have been the impetus for Jesus’s ministry.
In my view, Jesus’s connections to John’s movement would have been too well known for early Christian writers to conceal. Therefore (much like the crucifixion) John the Baptist was integrated into Christian theology…as a “forerunner” to Jesus…to cover up what would have otherwise been an embarrassment.
The above link is from biblical scholar James Tabor, formerly of UNC Charlotte. I’ve mentioned previously that I sometimes find him a little gullible, but he usually makes interesting arguments. In the article, looking at a Hebrew translation of the Gospel of Matthew, Tabor observes that Jesus is, in fact, seen as lesser than John the Baptist. While ancient historians did state that Matthew was originally composed in Hebrew, insofar as I am aware, the Gospels that we have today were seemingly written entirely in Greek, meaning that these historians were mistaken in their belief. For this reason, I don’t put too much weight into Tabor’s claims. BUT, I add it here to highlight how early Christianity was far from uniform in its theology. In fact, it would look quite alien compared to contemporary Christianity.
It’s been a minute since I’ve discussed the historical Jesus. It’s not that I’ve lost interest, it’s that I feel like I’ve hit a ceiling with that research. New evidence is hard to come by, and quite frankly, I doubt that anything of significance will ever turn up.
For armchair historians like myself, that’s a hard pill to swallow but those are the facts. Any new developments will be derived from a reinterpretation of the available archeological and historical data.
But every now and then, a REAL historian will present a compelling argument based on nonfalsified archaeological evidence that fits the historical record. Enter James Tabor and his argument for a certain Roman soldier being Jesus’s real father.
Clearly this is not a new argument. Even the ancients probably joked about Jesus’s virgin birth being a cover up for Mary’s alleged infidelity. What I didn’t realize though is that there is traces of this tradition very early, notably in Jewish texts. But according to Tabor, these texts aren’t mocking the fact that “Pantera” (and not Joseph) is Jesus’s real father.
I do find it interesting (if Tabor is correct) that this would survive in Jewish tradition and not in Christian tradition. We know that redaction was going on all the time with early Christian texts…especially the ones that survived into the New Testament…so it makes sense why these early followers would try to cover up this uncomfortable fact (and why Jewish sources wouldn’t bother doing so).
Still, I’d be cautious in embracing this theory. While I find Tabor to be a compelling speaker and historian, I feel like he might be a little too gullible. In the video, he also defends Morton Smith and his “Mar Saba letter” which discusses the “Secret Gospel of Mark.” If memory serves, I mentioned elsewhere on this blog that that letter is almost certainly a forgery. That might not sound like a big deal, especially considering that Tabor knew Smith, but it raises a few red flags for me.
New Testament scholarship has plenty of quacks. Not only from Christian apologists who argue that everything in the Bible is literal and true, but also from atheists who argue that Paul pulled the entirety of Christianity and Jesus out of his ass. Some argue that there’s no harm in arguing for such outrageous claims (which usually rely on mere conjecture) but that’s simply bad scholarship.
And bad scholarship is just that: bad scholarship. (And honestly, atheists, of which I consider myself, should know better)
Unfortunately there’s just too many holes in New Testament history, and given the nature of its study, it’s understandable that people are going to have some strong opinions. Moreover, new evidence is few and far in between, so scholars sometimes let their imaginations run wild with what scant data there is.
Nevertheless, MOST academics, ranging from the secular to the devoutly fundamental, can agree on a few things: 1st Thessalonians is probably the first Pauline epistle (likely written in 52AD) and the Gospel of Mark is the oldest gospel (likely written just after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70AD). In fact, I’d argue, from the perspective of academia, these dates could almost be deemed ironclad.
Few, if any, from the hardline atheist side (especially the “mythicist” school) would move these dates forward, largely to put as much distance between the (“alleged”) death of Jesus and the first written accounts. In fact, from this perspective, only the most ardent apologist would attempt to do so.
Then there’s Jonathon Bernier’s Rethinking the Dates of the New Testament.
The book was released this year, so I don’t know what it’s academic reception is. But a few armchair scholars are already labeling it a work of apologetics. And that’s a bit too harsh, in my opinion.
Nevertheless, when one pushes the dates of the gospels up by nearly 30 years, it should raise a few eyebrows. Much of this argument hinges on the dates of Luke (and by extension, the Book of Acts), which is largely agreed to be the last synoptic gospel written. I agree with Bernier that the “we” passages in Acts have been a difficult thing for scholars to explain, especially if we want to date Luke/Acts post 90AD. Additionally, Bernier makes a compelling (although not fully convincing) argument that the ending to Acts wouldn’t quite make sense to readers had it been completed sometime after Paul’s death.
Yes, Bernier is a professor at a theology school attached to the University of Toronto (but honestly, those are the only places you can find a job teaching about history of early Christianity and the New Testament). But he certainly doesn’t rely on “apologetics” to make his arguments. You may not find it compelling, but I think the importance of Bernier’s work is to highlight that an earlier dating for the New Testament is not entirely unfounded.
This book may not be a “paradigm shift” in New Testament studies, but the author does ask important questions and the knee jerk reaction shouldn’t be to label it apologetics.
Besides, doubt in god and Christianity shouldn’t hinge on Jesus’s existence or the dating of the New Testament. That’s a weird argument to make. So atheists, particularly ones like myself who can appreciate the New Testament for its historical and (at times) artistic value (as opposed to misusing it by believing it to be some holy document), should be open to reading Jonathon Bernier’s work.
“What happened to your face?” Jacob asked as I met him at the Cyrene’s inn.
“I was attacked by one of Herod’s thugs,” I said. “They’re onto us. So watch who you talk to.”
“You didn’t tell him anything did you?”
“I told him I was a friend of Joseph’s. After that, he left me alone.”
“Shit,” Jacob said and rubbed his face. “Well good news is I met with Ananias and his wife Sapphira. Remember them?”
“The one’s from Rome?”
“Yeah. They sold some of their property in Judea. They gave the money to John to distribute to the widows outside of the city walls. It’s finally happening Simon!”
“Don’t let it get to your head!” I told him. “You still need to lie low.”
Just then a big burly fellow with six other men busted through the door. “Χαιρετίσματα Jacob,” the booming voice said.
“You’re Stephanos?!” I exclaimed.
Stephanos looked over to me and back over to Jacob. “Who’s dis?” the man asked in his Greek accent.
“Relax, he’s Simon,” Jacob replied. “He was a good friend of Yeshua’s.”
Stephanos looked me up and down. “I heard you were arrested,” he said to me.
“No, it must have been another Simon,” I replied. “I’m from Bethsaida.”
Stephanos was confused. He looked back to Jacob. “I was told that Ananias gave you money. Our women and children are starving too-“
“Now Stephanos,” Jacob interrupted, “I know where you’re going with this. But Ananias was very clear: he wanted us to use this money to help the widows of Jerusalem.”
“Because we’re Greeks we’re not as important as the Hebrews?”
“I didn’t say that. Please listen to me. I’m only respecting Ananias’ wishes.”
Stephanos was furious. “We’ve been in the streets for days while you Hebrews have been coward up in your homes! Do you support us or not?!”
“Of course I support you!” Jacob yelled then took a deep breath. “I get how you feel, Stephanos, I really do. But you gotta understand our situation. Herod and Pilate aren’t too concerned with the Greeks right now. But they are after us. We can’t be out in the streets and we don’t have the money to spread around to everyone. I’m sorry. But Ananias is a very successful man from Rome and a diaspora Jew just like yourself. If you go to him and explain your situation, he can probably provide you with some assistance.”
Stephanos stood silent for a moment then muttered something in Greek. He walked up to Jacob. “μη με σταυρώνεις,” he said. Then him and his six men left the room.
“You should’ve stayed away from him Jacob,” I said.
“And Stephanos is a convert. To Ananias, he’s still a Gentile. He’s not giving him the money.”
Jacob began rubbing his temples. “I need a drink,” he said.
We went down to the tavern where Levi was scribbling something down. “What are you doing?” Jacob asked him.
“The Greeks wanted something to tell the people back in the Decapolis. Something about Yeshua.”
I looked over the writing. He didn’t write much but it was all in Greek. I couldn’t understand a word of it. Jacob was puzzled. “Where did you learn to write Greek?”
“In school, here in Jerusalem” Levi replied, “I had to learn it along with Hebrew.”
“Maybe we should drop the subject of Greeks for the time being,” I said.
We sat silently drinking our wine for a few minutes. There was a commotion on the streets. Andrew came running up. “They’re about to stone some of the Greeks!” he screamed.
Jacob and Levi instantly got up. “Aren’t you coming along?” Jacob asked me. Against my better judgment, I put down the wine cup and followed them.
A few blocks away, a crowd was gathering. Some were shouting. Others gawked out of morbid curiosity. Moments later, Temple guards began dragging out seven Greeks. One of them was Stephanos.
Behind them followed a few members of the Sanhedrin, including Joseph. Standing beside him was Ananias.
“Thief! Thief!” Ananias shouted. “These men conspired with Yeshua to rob the Temple and overthrow the Romans!”
My heart began to sink. This was a setup.
The guards threw the Greeks in front of Herod’s black-cloaked mercenaries who had their spears ready. Meanwhile, the Roman guards stood back smiling at the whole affair.
A judge from the Sanhedrin stood among the crowd and faced the accused. “Conspiracy, sedition, robbery of Ananias,” the judge said, “are these accusations true?”
It didn’t matter what Stephanos said. And he knew it. From his knees, he laughed and looked at the crowd. “You stiff-necked people,” he said, “your hearts and ears are still uncircumcised. Was there ever a prophet your ancestors did not persecute? They even killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One. And now you have betrayed and murdered him—”
“God help you,” the judge said.
With those words, the mercenaries plunged their spears into the bellies of the Greeks. A pool of blood formed in the middle of the crowd.
Levi screamed in horror and ran away.
But the crowd was just getting warmed up. They picked up stones or any disposable object and began hurling them towards Stephanos. He got bruised and battered and knocked in the head a few times but kept crawling forward.
Among the mercenaries, I recognized a familiar face: The scars….the scabs…the wiry frame. It was him alright. It was the man that attacked me a few days earlier.
And Stephanos kept crawling towards this man as the stones were raining down on him. When he reached his feet, Stephanos grabbed the man’s cloak and got to his knees.
I was too far away to hear anything, but Stephanos was clearly saying something to this man. Judging by his face, the figure was stunned by what was being said. But before the figure could react, a member of the crowd smashed a rock into Stephanos’ skull.
The man in the black cloak stood back with blood and brain matter splattered all over his face. He was in a daze.
Before the crowd could mutilate the bodies, Joseph stepped in to quiet them. That’s enough!” he yelled. “The perpetrators of the Passover sedition have been caught and punished! This matter is closed! Please return to your homes!” As the crowds dispersed, the Temple guards started dragging the bodies outside of the city walls.
Jacob and I returned to the inn in silence. We didn’t know what to make of what just happened. “Do we leave Jerusalem?” Jacob asked.
“Why?” I replied. “It looks like Joseph and Ananias took care of our problem.”
“Simon saw Yeshua come back from the dead!” Andrew said.
“I didn’t see Yeshua!” I replied. “How did you get to be so stupid?”
Andrew and I were meeting with Jacob and Levi at the Cyrene’s tavern after returning to Jerusalem. “What did you see?” Levi asked me.
“Look,” I said, completely ignoring his question, “I only came back to Jerusalem to bring Jacob back to Galilee. I already got Yeshua killed, I can’t let the same thing happen to his brother.”
“I’m not going back,” Jacob said.
“This might come as a surprise to you Simon, but people actually believe the Message. You thought the Romans could never be driven out of Judea, but everyone took notice of Yeshua. Including the Greeks!”
“The Greeks? We were only in Scythopolis for a few days. We barely spoke Greek!”
“Yeshua made quite an impression on them.”
“Yeah, they’re saying that he did all kind of shit,” Levi said, “healing the blind, casting out demons and sending them into pigs, making the lame walk…”
“Are you sure they’re not confusing him with one of the thousands of other lunatics that wonder around the Decapolis?”
“I’m telling ya Simon,” Jacob exclaimed, “these Greeks have some goddamned imagination. They think he’s some wandering miracle worker! There is some guy named Stephanos who followed us all the way from Scythopolis. He’s been screaming in the streets! He’s pissed about the crucifixion!”
“You guys didn’t talk to him, right?”
Right then, Mary walked into the tavern. She had the look of death on her face.
“What’s wrong?” Jacob asked.
All of us ventured outside of the city walls to Joseph’s tomb near the Mount of Olives. The women were weeping. I walked inside the tomb and Yeshua’s body wasn’t there.
“The Greeks?” I asked Jacob.
“How would they have known where his body was?”
Joseph was stomping down the hill up ahead. I looked over to Jacob. “Let me handle this,” I said.
Joseph was only a few yards away when he started yelling. “You guys have been an epic pain in my ass!”
“Now Joseph, calm down,” I said. “I’m only here to collect Jacob and bring him back to Galilee. I swear. I’m not here to cause trouble.”
“Like hell! All the Jews are gone but now the streets are crawling with Greeks! Ever since Passover ended, they’ve been piling into the city!”
“I know, but we have nothing to do with that.”
“Bullshit! This idiot here…” Joseph cried, referring to Jacob, “has been seen screaming on the streets with that lunatic Stephanos. And now all of you are grave robbing!”
I shook my head as I looked over to Jacob. “Joseph, we didn’t take Yeshua’s body. Mary came here this morning and it was gone. As for the Greeks, I don’t know what to tell you. We’ll leave Jerusalem and maybe this will all blow over in a few weeks.”
“Too late. They’ve been threatening the Sadducees and Pharisees because apparently, Yeshua was railing against them in Scythopolis! I know you were there Simon. So this IS your fault!”
Damn it, I thought. I looked over to Jacob. “This has gotten out of hand. We’re leaving.”
“If all of you are leaving, you better do it quick. The Sanhedrin wants this fire put out now! Herod is bringing in mercenaries from all over the empire. A few of them might be here now. You’re probably as good as dead,” Joseph said.
“Then that means you too,” I told him. “You’re as guilty as the rest of us.”
Jacob spoke up. “It doesn’t matter where we go. Do none of you see what’s going on here? The moment Yeshua spoke against the Romans and their collaborators, we had a target on our backs. We knew the risks. And we accepted them. Because look around you: lepers, beggars, widows, children sleeping on the streets. We can’t continue to live like this. Even the Greeks agree! Yes Yeshua is dead, but that doesn’t mean the Kingdom of God is dead too. We continue to fight for it or we die in the streets.”
Joseph was silent.
“It’s time for you to take a stand Joseph,” Jacob continued. “You’re either with us or you’re with Herod.”
Joseph looked down to the ground and thought for a moment. “I have no love for the Romans,” Joseph said, “but I want no more bloodshed. So I ask all of you: stay away from the Gentiles. They aren’t our problem. Let them take the fall for this Yeshua situation. If you can do this, I can keep the Sanhedrin off your scent.”
“But Joseph,” Jacob replied, “a lot of them are Jewish converts. We’re in this together.”
“Listen to me Jacob: stay away from them. And please, for the love of God, lay low!”
With those words, Joseph walked away. Jacob was beside himself. “What does he expect us to do?” he said to me, “we can’t just wish the Romans away!”
I put my hands on his shoulders to calm him down. “Jacob, he may be onto something,” I said. “Let’s face it: we don’t have the power to get the Romans out of Judea just yet. Our only choice is to play the long game. Alright? Now you might be safe in Jerusalem for the time being, but you’re gonna have to live to fight another day. Also, keep quiet about being Yeshua’s brother. Okay?”
Jacob nodded. “Are you going back to Galilee?” he asked.
I smiled. “No. I gotta keep you out of trouble,” I replied.
All of us went back into the city walls individually. As I was returning to the Cyrene’s tavern, a strange man in a black cloak pulled me into an alley and put a dagger to my throat.
“I got money in my satchel,” I said to him.
“I don’t want your money!” the man replied. He was a short, wiry figure with rashes and scabs all over his face. “I recognize you!”
“Well I don’t recognize you.”
“Don’t play with me! I saw you with that man in Caesarea.”
“Yeshua you fool!”
He punched me in the stomach and I fell to the ground. “Why are you in Jerusalem?” the figure asked.
“I’m just a fisherman. I’m here in town because of Passover. I’m leaving tomorrow, I swear!” I said as I was gasping for air.
“Why would I lie about that?!”
He kicked me in the face and I fell flat on the ground. The man continued his interrogation.
“Who do you know here?”
I crawled back to my knees. “Joseph, alright! He’s from Arimathea! He’s on the Jerusalem Council!”
“Can you confirm that?”
“We can go talk to him now!”
The man put his dagger back into his cloak and he helped me off the ground. He also dusted me off. “I’m sorry about the confusion,” he said. “There’s a lot of insurrectionists around. They always cause trouble around Passover. Can never be too safe, ya know?”
I wiped the blood from my mouth. “Indeed.”
“Alright, well you take care now,” the man said.
He walked up to the edge of the alley, looked to his left and right, and disappeared back into the city streets.
I’m old and my mind is going. Too much drugs, too much useless information clouds my brain. Which is why a lot of common knowledge straight up misses me.
As you are aware, I’m a nerd for New Testament/Early Christian history. Am I a Christian or a religious person? Not really, but I don’t understand the question enough to give a definitive answer (remember, my mind is going). I simply obsess over 1st Century Christianity because, as Bart Ehrman asserts, it might just be the most important era in Western History (I disagree. I think it’s the second most).
Unfortunately, there’s just not enough concrete information to definitely say what happened during Jesus’s real life ministry. Of course, speculating is part of the fun, but it’s also a curse. Because there’s so many gaps in the timeline, this invites a multitude of con artists and conspiracy mongers to perpetuate fabricated stories.
Which brings me to the “Secret Gospel of Mark”.
The actual Gospel of Mark, the one we have in the New Testament, is quietly the most important text in Western thought. I say this because the Gospels are certainly more widely read than something like Plato’s Republic, and Mark is the Gospel that Matthew and Luke based much of their texts on (the other source they both used, the hypothetical Q source, I would argue the author of Mark was familiar with as there are too many similarities…which would make Q the most important text. But Q remains hypothetical). Mark is therefore the oldest surviving account of Jesus’s life (the oldest surviving Christian writings, however, are the seven verified Epistles of Paul, with 1st Thessalonians being the oldest).
Now, there are A LOT of questions for Mark. Too many to recount here. It is the barest of the four canonical Gospels with plenty of peculiarities.
But what if someone credentialed allegedly came across evidence to fill in these gaps?
Enter Morton Smith, a Ph.D from Hebrew University and Th.D from Harvard Divinity, and professor of ancient history at Columbia University. Pretty impressive right?
I was made aware of this story when reading Ehrman’s Lost Christianities. I’ve never heard it before and I was shocked at my ignorance. Now Ehrman is probably the leading academic in the field of Early Christianity, and even he doesn’t quite know what to make of this story.
Briefly, Smith claimed to have found a lost letter from Clement of Alexandria, an early Christian theologian, which describes a variant of the Gospel of Mark and even provides a couple of passages. And boy oh boy! What passages they were!
The problem is that, allegedly, this lost letter was transcribed in the 18th Century, and Smith couldn’t provide the copy because it was property of a monastery in Jerusalem. He DID, however, provide photographs of the letter and scholars have determined that these writings were indeed in the style of Clement and Mark (and the handwriting was also of 18th Century style).
Additionally, Ehrman recalls a story of hearing another academic claiming to have seen the letter himself, despite the library still refusing to permit research into it. So, it’s safe to say that this letter genuinely existed.
Whether or not it was written in the 18th Century is a different story.
You see, because if there was one person on this planet that could have forged that document…well enough to fool many academics…Morton Smith was that man. And, apparently, he had a motive to do so (see Ehrman’s Lost Christianities).
For the record, I think the letter is a total, unambiguous forgery. Too good to be true+motive+means=bullshit. But I gotta tip my hat to Smith.
Every bullshit artist knows that eventually they’ll get caught in the lie. But the trick is to leave a shred of doubt. And Morton Smith either made the discovery of the millennium, or the greatest forgery of all time.
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.