DATE April 26, 2006 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Bart Ehrman discusses Gnostic gospels and his new book
"Peter, Paul and Mary Magdalene"
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
My guest, Bart Ehrman, is a scholar of the New Testament and early
Christianity. He's written extensively about the Gnostic gospels, the texts
from the first century of Christianity that were kept out of the canon and
considered heretical. He's also the author of the best-seller "Misquoting
Jesus" and wrote an earlier book about "The Da Vinci Code," comparing the
novel with what historians have to say about early Christianity. Ehrman
chairs the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina
at Chapel Hill. His new book is about the three people who may have been
Jesus' most important followers: Simon Peter, the Apostle Paul and Mary
Magdalene. The book is called "Peter, Paul and Mary Magdalene: The Followers
of Jesus in History and Legend." The book draws on the New Testament and the
Now you described Mary Magdalene as the media star of the three people you
write about. Why do you think there is so much interest in her?
Mr. BART EHRMAN (Author, "Peter, Paul and Mary Magdalene"): Well, it's
interesting because she's the one of the three that we know least about, and
that may, in fact, contribute to the mystique around her. With Peter, Peter's
a prominent figure in the Gospels. He shows up all over the place. The
Apostle Paul, we have his own writings, and so we know what he thought and
believed, but with Mary Magdalene, she's a very elusive figure because she
rarely shows up at all in the New Testament. Her name only appears 13 times
and 12 of those occurrences, it's only at Jesus' death and resurrection. So
she's only mentioned one time during Jesus' entire public ministry. And so I
think this left a lot of room for the imagination to figure out who she might
have been given the fact that we know so little about her.
GROSS: As the woman who first discovers that he has been resurrected, Mary
Magdalene has a very important place in the creation of Christianity.
Mr. EHRMAN: Yeah, well, you could make the argument that, in fact, Mary
Magdalene is the one who started Christianity. If Christianity is the belief
that Jesus was raised from the dead and if she's the first to have discovered
his empty tomb and to declare to others that his body wasn't there and that he
was raised, then she would be the first to make the Christian proclamation and
the Christian church in some sense is based upon this declaration of hers.
And so, in some ways, you could argue that she started Christianity. That
makes her rather important.
GROSS: Now Mary Magdalene is popularly perceived as a prostitute who became
very close to Jesus. And you dispute that she was a prostitute.
Mr. EHRMAN: Well, there's no evidence in any of our early sources at all
that she was a prostitute. The only thing that's said about her in the New
Testament is that she's named Mary Magdalene which Magdalene means she came
from the town of Magdala which was a fishing village on the Sea of Galilee.
And we're told that she had seven demons cast out of her, but we're not told
what the nature of these demons might have been, and we're told that she and a
large group of other women accompanied Jesus and his apostles on his travels
and that these other women supplied Jesus and his disciples with the funds
they needed to survive. And so that's it. So there isn't anything to suggest
she was a prostitute.
What ended up happening was there's another story in the New Testament of a
woman who anoints Jesus prior to his death, and in one of the Gospels, she's
called a sinful woman, and so what later readers did is they assumed that Mary
Magdalene was this sinful woman, and they assumed that this sinful woman must
have been sinful because she was a prostitute, and thereby they drew the
conclusion that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute. But they got there simply by
combining passages from all over the New Testament into one kind of megastory
that that actually doesn't exist.
GROSS: But what about the story of Mary being stoned for committing adultery?
Mr. EHRMAN: Right, well, that's one of the most popular stories in the
Gospels where this woman is dragged before Jesus and the authorities say that
according to the law of Moses, `We're to stone this person. What do you say?'
It puts Jesus in this trap because if he says, `Well, yeah, go ahead and stone
her,' then he's violating his teachings of love and forgiveness. But if he
says, `No, forgive her,' then he's breaking the law of Moses, and so what's he
supposed to do? And so this is the story where he finally says, `Let the one
without sin among you be the first to cast a stone at her.' And feeling
convicted of their own sins, they leave and leave her there by herself. And
Jesus then says, `Is there no one here to condemn you? Neither do I condemn
you. Go and sin no more.'
It's an interesting story for a number of reasons. For one reason is that
it's not actually found in the Gospels originally. This is a story added by
scribes to the Gospel of John in the later centuries. It's not part of the
original New Testament, but even in the story as it was later added to the
Gospel of John, there's no mention of Mary Magdalene. This is another unnamed
woman. And so only later imagination attached the name Mary Magdalene to this
woman. So Mary Magdalene probably has nothing to do with this story.
GROSS: What was Mary Magdalene's relationship to Jesus? I mean, was she one
of the very few or perhaps the only really close female disciple of his?
Mr. EHRMAN: Well, that's the--that's what you find in popular imagination is
that you have the 12 disciples and Mary Magdalene. In fact, in the Gospels,
whenever Mary Magdalene is mentioned, it's almost always in company with other
women. So the one time she's mentioned during Jesus' public ministry, she's
accompanied with--accompanied by Joanna and Susanna and a large number of
other women. And so this large group, whatever it is, 10, 12, 15 women, are
going around with Jesus and his 12 disciples. And so she's not singled out at
all during Jesus' public ministry. And even in the stories that she does
figure prominently where she sees Jesus get crucified and she sees him get
buried and she goes to the tomb on the third day, in almost all of these other
stories, again, she's accompanied by other women.
And so the idea that she alone was the close female disciple to Jesus just
isn't correct historically. What is correct is that she played a special role
in later Christian imagination. She, more than any of the other women, was a
topic of conversation among Christians in later decades and especially in
later centuries, so that it kind of--legendary association between Mary and
Jesus developed, which, of course, continues down to the present day where
when you read in "The Da Vinci Code" that Mary Magdalene, in fact, was not
only a close follower of Jesus, she was actually his spouse and lover and had
children by him.
GROSS: Yeah, well, we'll get to that a little later.
Mr. EHRMAN: Yes.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Bart Ehrman and his new book is
called "Peter, Paul and Mary Magdalene: The Followers of Jesus in History and
Legend." He's also the author of the best-seller "Misquoting Jesus."
So there's very few mentions of Mary Magdalene in the New Testament. But
there are more references to her in the Gnostic gospels, the gospels that did
not make it into the canon. In fact, there's a gospel of Mary Magdalene.
What does that book tell us about Mary?
Mr. EHRMAN: Well, it's very interesting. This gospel of Mary Magdalene has
actually been around for over 100 years. It was--this particular book was
actually discovered in the late 1890s and was taken to Berlin and,
unfortunately, because of two world wars and a number of other catastrophes,
it wasn't made public until 1955. But it's an intriguing gospel because Mary
Magdalene is the central figure. She's important in this gospel not because
she's a sexual partner of Jesus but because she's the one to whom Jesus gives
a special revelation. And so that's why it's called the gospel of Mary. It's
the gospel that Mary herself proclaims.
The way the gospel works is Jesus gives some final admonitions to his male
disciples and then leaves. He apparently goes back to heaven, and they're
distraught because they're realizing that if Jesus' enemies killed him, then
they're probably going to come after them next. Mary rises up and comforts
them and tells them not to fear, that they'll be protected. And then Peter
asks Mary for a revelation that Jesus had given her. And so Mary launches
into this description of a vision she had of Jesus. Unfortunately, right at
that point in the manuscript, we're missing four pages. And so--but then the
story picks up again four pages later, and she's describing how the soul can
ascend to heaven and how it can escape its material trappings here on earth.
And she finishes giving this description of this vision that Jesus had given
her, and it leads them to this big debate between--among the male disciples
who are a little bit upset that Jesus would reveal this thing to a woman and
not tell them about it. And so there's this kind of a controversy until
finally Peter says he doesn't believe it because, you know, Jesus surely
wouldn't reveal something to Mary and not to him. And so, at the end, finally
one of the disciples, Levi, stands up and says they ought to accept this
revelation and go out and preach the gospel, and then that's what they do.
GROSS: Mary is also written about in the gospel of Thomas, another Gnostic
gospel. Tell the story of the conversation between Jesus and Peter about
Mr. EHRMAN: Yeah, it's very interesting because again, as in the gospel of
Mary and as in some of the other Gnostic gospels, there seems to be this
deeply rooted controversy between Peter the right-hand man, so to say, and
Mary, the close follower of Jesus who's a woman. The way it manifests itself
in the gospel of Thomas is particularly intriguing. It's the final saying in
the gospel of Thomas. Thomas is a gospel that consists of 114 sayings of
Jesus. There are no narratives, no stories of any kind, simply 114 sayings.
And the final one, saying number 114, has Peter saying that Mary ought to
leave them, ought to leave the presence of the disciples because women are not
worthy of the life. So women don't deserve eternal life. And Jesus then
replies that Jesus himself is going to make her male because every woman who
makes herself male will enter into the kingdom of heaven.
And so this is a very, very interesting passage because it shows that there
were some Christians who didn't think that women were on a par with men, but
Jesus indicates that, in fact, women will be on a par with men and will have
eternal life just as men will. But what's interesting is that for them to
become worthy of eternal life, they first have to become male, and so there's
been a lot of discussion among scholars about what exactly that might mean,
and isn't that, in fact--I mean, on one hand it sounds somewhat liberating
because women are given an equal chance at salvation, but on the other hand,
it's a bit oppressive because women have to become men in order to be saved.
And so what does that all mean?
GROSS: What do you think it means? I mean, obviously Jesus didn't mean,
well, go have a sex-change operation.
Mr. EHRMAN: No, no, no. I don't...
GROSS: What does it mean to become male if you're female?
Mr. EHRMAN: Right. Well, OK, so I think the best way to understand this
saying is to put it into its ancient context where people in the ancient world
had a different understanding of what it meant to be male and female from what
we understand. We think of one kind of a human being, but there are two
forms, there's male and female, two kinds of being the one thing human. In
the ancient world, they didn't think of it that way. They didn't think being
human meant being two different kinds of things. They thought that being
human meant two different degrees of thing, that human beings--some humans
were more perfect than others. Just as humans are more perfect than other
animals and animals are more perfect than plants, and gods are more perfect
Well, the human being is on a kind of continuum. The most perfect human being
is the powerful man, who is stronger, more forceful than other human beings.
Weaker men are less perfect. Women are less perfect than men, and sometimes
the ancient people put this in rather crass terms. They said that women were
men who hadn't grown penises, whose muscles hadn't developed, whose lungs
hadn't developed, so they didn't have deep voices. They didn't grow facial
hair, so they were imperfect men. So, in order for humans to transcend the
human realm altogether to become divine in a sense, they have to continue
along the continuum, which means men have to continue on to become gods and
women first have to go through the stage of being men. And so that's what
Jesus means, apparently, is that women are going to continue along this
continuum of human kind and eventually transgresses and transcended then in
order to become divine.
GROSS: My guest is Bible scholar Bart Ehrman. His new book is called "Peter,
Paul and Mary Magdalene." More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: My guest Bart Ehrman is a scholar of the New Testament and the Gnostic
gospels. He's the author of "Truth and Fiction in The Da Vinci Code,"
"Misquoting Jesus," and the new book, "Peter, Paul and Mary Magdalene."
Now I don't need to tell our listeners that "The Da Vinci Code" has been
adapted into a movie that will be opening soon with Tom Hanks. In "The Da
Vinci Code," Mary Magdalene is portrayed as being married to Jesus and having
a sexual relationship with him. What inspires that part of "The Da Vinci
Mr. EHRMAN: I think what inspires that part of "The Da Vinci Code" is the
book, "Holy Blood, Holy Grail," which was written in the early 1980s which has
exactly this point, that Mary Magdalene and Jesus were married and had a
daughter and that this daughter became--ultimately Mary and the daughter are
in France and this girl Sarah ends up becoming the founder of the Merovingian
dynasty in France.
GROSS: This is a novel?
Mr. EHRMAN: Well, the authors of this book, "Holy Blood, Holy Grail," claim
that, in fact, it was a factual account based on secret papers that had been
uncovered. But, in fact, it's--I mean, it's only loosely covered in the
nonfiction section of The New York Times. In fact, it's a fictional account.
But they claim it's factual and that Dan Brown claims it's factual. But in
point--in actual fact, there's nothing to back it up. I mean, there are no
ancient sources of any kind whatsoever that indicate that Jesus was married to
Mary Magdalene or that they had sex or made babies. This is just a part of
the modern imagination.
GROSS: Is this the book that--where the author sued Dan Brown saying that
"The Da Vinci Code" was plagiarized?
Mr. EHRMAN: It was a very strange court case in a way because both parties
wanted to claim that the information found in both books was factual, not
fiction, but--I mean, if these are facts, it's hard to plagiarize a fact. I
mean, facts are facts. And so this created a rather strange scenario for the
lawsuit, and eventually Dan Brown won the lawsuit because they decided that,
in fact, there's no evidence he had plagiarized it, but if you read the two
accounts, it's quite clear this is where he's getting his information from.
GROSS: Now there's also the gospel of Philip, which you say is probably part
of the inspiration for this idea of Jesus and Mary Magdalene having a physical
Mr. EHRMAN: Right. There are two passages in the gospel of Philip, which is
a gospel discovered in 1945. Two passages that mention Mary Magdalene and one
of them, she's called the companion of Jesus. And so in "The Da Vinci Code,"
the authority on the Holy Grail points out that in ancient Aramaic, as any
Aramaic scholar will tell you, the word for companion literally meant spouse,
which sounds pretty convincing at first, but the problem is the gospel of
Philip wasn't written in Aramaic. It's actually a book that was written in
Coptic. And when you read the Coptic, which is an ancient Egyptian language,
and you look up this passage, it actually uses the Greek lone word at this
point for companion. It's the word koinonos. Some people know the word
koinonia which means fellowship. Koinonos is a Greek word which does not mean
spouse, it just means somebody who's a companion. And so this is just saying
that somebody who accompanied Jesus, Mary was. But then there's this other
passage in "The Da Vinci Code" which gets quoted from the gospel of Philip.
We're told that Mary Magdalene and Jesus had some kind of relationship because
the passage says that--it seems like it says that Jesus was kissing Mary. Now
what Dan Brown doesn't know, apparently, is that this passage in the gospel of
Philip is actually full of holes. There are gaps in the manuscript. So what
the verse actually says is this, "And the companion of the," then there's this
gap in the manuscript. "Mary Magdalene," there's a gap in the manuscript.
"Her more than," gap, "the disciples," gap, "kiss her," gap, "on her," gap.
GROSS: Oh, you'd read anything into that.
Mr. EHRMAN: So it sounds like Jesus is kissing Mary Magdalene on some body
part, but we're not sure where. And so, you know, some people have taken this
to mean that they had this sexual relationship because Jesus is kissing Mary.
The problem is that this gospel Philip talks about kissing in another passage,
and there it's quite clear that kissing is not some kind of sexual foreplay,
that kissing is something that Christians do to one another as a symbolic
indication that they're delivering revelation to one another. You speak God's
word with your mouth, and so a kiss to another Christian is an indication that
you're delivering a revelation to them. So Jesus kissing Mary Magdalene
simply is saying that he revealed his truth to her. It's got nothing to do
GROSS: Now having studied both the New Testament and the Gnostic gospels,
what's your comprehension now of Mary Magdalene's place in the Jesus story and
the development of Christianity?
Mr. EHRMAN: My sense is that Mary Magdalene probably was one of the people
who followed Jesus around during his travels. He had more followers than just
his 12 disciples. He had other men and women who followed him, and Mary
Magdalene was one of them. And she evidently went with him the last week of
his life to Jerusalem with a group of other people, men and women. And she
probably saw him get crucified and saw where he got buried, and I think she
probably was one of the women who went to the tomb on the third day and found
that it was empty and started saying that Jesus must have been raised from the
So my read on it is that Mary very well may be the one who started
Christianity. To that extent, she's extremely important for the history of
our form of civilization. But saying that she's the one who found the empty
tomb isn't the same as saying that she's the one who was married to Jesus and
had sex with him and made babies. I mean, those are two very different
things, and there's no evidence in my view that they had a particularly close
or intimate relationship. But what makes her important is her role in
GROSS: Now, if you take away the part of the story where Mary's actually a
prostitute and Jesus kind of cleverly prevents other people from stoning her,
it changes the story of Jesus, too, because he's no longer that person who's
friends with a prostitute and who discourages others from stoning her.
Mr. EHRMAN: Well, that's right, except that there are other passages that
suggest that Jesus did hang out with social outcasts. Of course, prostitutes
could be in that group, that Jesus didn't associate with the high and mighty,
the religious leaders, but with the lowly. The reason that he attracted
people like that to his message is that he was proclaiming that God was soon
going to intervene and overthrow the oppressive forces of this world and bring
in a good kingdom in which there'd be equality, where there'd be--where people
who now are humbled would be exalted and those who are exalted now would be
humbled. And the first would be last and the last first. And this obviously
was attractive to people who were humbled and lowly and oppressed and women
included. So that I think that's probably the sort of thing that would have
drawn a woman like Mary Magdalene to his message.
GROSS: Bart Ehrman is the author of the new book, "Peter, Paul and Mary
Magdalene." He'll be back in the second half of the show.
I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Bruce Springsteen sings songs made famous by Pete Seeger on his new
CD, "We Shall Overcome." Coming up rock critic Ken Tucker has a review. Also
more with Biblical scholar Bart Ehrman.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Bart Ehrman. He's a
scholar of the New Testament and the Gnostic gospels, the text that were kept
out of the canon and considered heretical. Ehrman chairs the Department of
Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. His new
book, "Peter, Paul and Mary Magdalene," examines the history and legend
surrounding three of Jesus' most important followers.
Let's look at Peter. What's he best known for in the New Testament?
Mr. EHRMAN: Well, in the New Testament, Peter's best known as being Jesus'
right-hand man, the closest disciple to Jesus, and he's known a bit for a
character flaw, that Peter always seems to be putting his foot in his mouth
and doing the wrong thing. In terms of doing the wrong thing, of course, he's
known especially for having denied Jesus three times on the night of his
arrest after explicitly claiming that he was willing to go to his death with
Jesus. And so when the moment came, he turned coward and denied Christ three
times according to the Gospels. But that is, in fact, emblematic of how he
acts otherwise throughout the Gospels. He always seems to be saying the wrong
thing or doing the wrong thing. And I think people have been attracted to
Peter for that reason because he's a very human being. He's not walking above
the earth. He, in fact, is like many people with many failings.
GROSS: But I think it's in one of the Gnostic gospels he performs miracles.
Mr. EHRMAN: Well, yeah, not just Gnostic gospels. In a number of later
gospels, Peter is a fantastic miracle worker and, in fact, not just in
noncanonical books but also in the book of Acts in the New Testament. Peter
after Jesus' crucifixion and resurrection becomes the leader of the Christian
church in Jerusalem, and as the leader of the church, he's its principal
spokesperson and its main miracle worker. So even in the New Testament,
Jesus--Peter performs miracles, many of which are like Jesus' miracles. He
can heal the sick, he can raise the dead, and so you find accounts of this in
the New Testament book of Acts, but then his miracle-working abilities get
exaggerated when you move into later gospels, where he converts thousands and
thousands of people, virtually the entire population of the city of Rome based
on his fantastic miracles.
GROSS: The story I found most interesting because it's so silly-sounding is
that he resurrects a smoked tuna?
Mr. EHRMAN: Yes. Yes. So this is one of the great stories from Christian
antiquity. Peter is preaching to the crowds in Rome, and they don't believe
what he's saying about Jesus being raised from the dead. And so he says,
`Look if'--he sees this smoked tuna hanging in this window of the fishmonger's
shop, and so he says to the crowd, `If I can make this smoked tuna come back
to life, will you believe that Jesus was raised from the dead?' They said,
`Yes, we'll believe that.' And so Peter grabs this tuna and throws it in the
water, and it comes back to life and starts swimming around. And we're told
that some people didn't believe that it had come back to life, and so they
took pieces of bread and started throwing it in the water and this fish would
start eating the bread. And this lasted for hours, and so it wasn't just kind
of a mini miracle. In fact, he made this thing really come back to life. And
then everybody came to believe and converted to believe in Jesus then.
So this is a kind of miracle that Peter does that might sound silly today but,
in fact, you know, the thing is when you read these gospels outside the New
Testament, a lot of their narratives sound silly, but it's because we're not
accustomed to these narratives. The narratives within the New Testament
probably would sound silly to people who aren't familiar with the New
Testament. I mean, in the New Testament, for example, you have a story that
Peter gets so powerful that--to heal the sick that on sunny days, they can
just lay the sick out on the street and if his shadow falls on somebody who's
sick, they're immediately cured. Well, that's--you know, maybe that doesn't
sound as strange because it's in the New Testament, but it's an equally
strange story, I think.
GROSS: One of the noncanonical texts about Peter is called the Apocalypse of
Peter in which he is said to have heard Jesus talk about the realm of the
dead. What does this book tell us?
Mr. EHRMAN: Well, this is another terrific book from early Christianity. It
was a very popular book in the early centuries. Up to the fourth century,
there were Christian leaders who thought this should be part of the New
Testament, and so it almost made it into the New Testament. And in this book,
Peter not only hears about the realms of the dead from Jesus, it sounds like
when you read the text, it sounds like Jesus actually takes Peter on a guided
tour of the realms of the blessed and of the damned. And so this is the
earliest example we have of this kind of journey given to a Christian, and so
this was the earliest forerunner we have for "Dante's Divine Comedy."
The way it works is Peter is talking with Jesus and asking about the
afterlife, and then Jesus shows him what it's like, and so they visit heaven
and they see how happy people are there, and it's, you know, that part of the
book is interesting but it's, you know, there are only so many ways you can
explain that somebody's eternally blessed. You know, they're very blessed
there. Oh, they're happy. They're so happy. Happy are they. And so he and
another--so many--but when you get to the realms of the damned, if you have
any imagination at all, it's easy to come up with creative descriptions of
what that's like.
And that's exactly what happens in this Apocalypse of Peter. Peter is shown
these various places in hell where people are tormented for their sins, and as
it turns out, people are often being tormented so that the punishment fits the
crime. So that, for example, people who are habitual liars are hanged by
their tongues over eternal flames. Women who have plaited their hair to make
them attractive to strangers are hanged by their hair over eternal fire.
These strangers who had sex with these women are hanged by their genitals over
eternal fire. And so it goes.
So, this is an account that's obviously written in order to explain you really
don't want to go through this, and so if you're smart, you'll be a follower of
Jesus and enter into the realm of the blessed rather than the realm of the
GROSS: Now in your book, "Peter, Paul and Mary Magdalene," you write that
it's important to understand what the Jewish apocalyptics believed at the
start of Christianity. So what did they believe?
Mr. EHRMAN: Yeah, so the reason that it's important to know what apocalyptic
thought was is because Jesus himself was apocalyptic. This is a term that
modern scholars had given to a world view that was prominent among Jews in the
first century. Apocalypticism maintained that there were forces of evil that
were in control of the world now. That's why there's so much pain and
suffering. This is why there are wars and there are famines and droughts and
hurricanes, because there are these forces of evil in charge. But God, who
ultimately created this world, is also going to redeem this world, and he's
going to intervene in history and overthrow the forces of evil that are
creating such havoc here. And he's going to bring in a good kingdom in which
there'll be a Utopian-like existence in which there will be no more pain or
Jesus himself seemed to have taught that this kingdom of God was coming very
soon, and he thought apparently that it was a real kingdom. It would be a
place here on earth that would be ruled through God's emissary, his Messiah,
and people who lived to see this coming of this kingdom would have blessed
Utopian-like existences. Jesus said to his disciples that his own generation
would not pass away before these things take place. He told his disciples
that some of you standing here won't taste death before you see the kingdom of
God has come in power. And so Christianity started out as an apocalyptic sect
of Judaism with Jesus himself as an apocalypticist. And Jesus' early
followers, including Peter, Paul and Mary, were probably all apocalypticists
who thought that the end was coming soon, probably within their own lifetimes.
GROSS: And how did the death and the resurrection of Jesus in the story as
it's told in the New Testament change that apocalyptic vision?
Mr. EHRMAN: The earliest followers of Jesus believed, as did other
apocalyptic Jews, that at the end of this age, when evil reached its climax,
there would be an intervention by God, and this intervention, it would
overthrow the forces of evil and that included evil people. And not only
people who were living, but also people who had died. You shouldn't think,
apocalypticists would say, that you can side with the forces of evil and
become rich and powerful and famous and then die and get away with it, because
you can't get away with it because God's going to raise you from the dead.
So this is the time in which--this time period is when Jews started developing
the idea of a future resurrection of the dead. And this was a kind of
theodicy, a way of explaining why there can be such pain and suffering in the
world because God's ultimately going to make it right. He's going to raise
from the dead everybody who died. Those who have done well in their life and
done good will be given an eternal reward, and those who have acted badly are
going to be given eternal punishment. When the early Christians believed that
Jesus was raised from the dead, they already knew there was going to be a
resurrection of the dead at the end of time.
And so for the early believers in Jesus' resurrection, this was confirmation
to them that they were living at the end of time. They thought that the
resurrection had already started, that Jesus was the first to be raised and
that everybody else now was going to be raised also soon. That's why the
Apostle Paul talks about Jesus as the first fruits of the resurrection. It's
an agricultural image. When you go out and you go out and start harvesting
your crops, you have a party that night to celebrate the inbringing of the
first fruits. And then you go out and get the rest of the crop the next day.
Well, Paul thought that the next day was coming very soon and that Jesus was
the first and that others were going to follow suit. And so the resurrection
of Jesus for the earliest Christians confirmed the idea that their apocalyptic
views were absolutely right and that God was soon to intervene in history.
The problem, of course, is that it didn't happen. The end never came.
And so with the passing of time, people started understanding both Jesus and
the significance of his resurrection differently, in nonapocalyptic ways. So
that eventually over the passage of decades and then centuries, Christians
move away from their apocalyptic roots to a religion that was nonapocalyptic.
So much so that today when people talk about the afterlife, they tend not to
think about a kingdom of God that's actually literally coming to earth. They
think that your soul is going to die and go to heaven. Well, this is an idea
that's foreign to what Jesus himself taught. Jesus taught that there'd be an
eternal life here on earth in the future kingdom of God, that it'd be a bodily
existence in which people would live in their bodies eternally. But
Christians today tend to think of the soul living on after death rather than
GROSS: My guest is Bible scholar Bart Ehrman. His new book is called "Peter,
Paul and Mary Magdalene." More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: My guest Bart Ehrman is a scholar of the New Testament and the Gnostic
gospels. He's the author of "Truth and Fiction in The Da Vinci Code,"
"Misquoting Jesus" and the new book, "Peter, Paul and Mary Magdalene."
You know, your book is about Peter, Paul and Mary Magdalene. I regret we
haven't saved much time for Paul, but before we close, I just want to ask you
about the gospel of Judas about which there's been a lot written in the past
few weeks. Do you think that this newly presented to the public gospel, a
noncanonical gospel, significantly changes the Jesus story? How much stake do
you put in this gospel in which Jesus tells Judas to betray him? Tells him to
Mr. EHRMAN: Well, I think this is a spectacular discovery. In my opinion,
it's the most important discovery--Christian discovery of an archaeological
nature of the last 60 years since the discovery of the gospel of Thomas and
the Nag Hammadi findings of 1945. It's going--one of the reasons its
significant is because it's just so interesting because, in this gospel, Judas
isn't the villain of the story, he's the hero of the story. He's the only one
who understands what Jesus is all about. He's the only one who received
Jesus' secret revelation and he's the only one who does Jesus' will. The
other disciples are completely mistaken in thinking that Jesus is the son of
the God who created this world, and Judas learns that that's not true at all.
So one of the reasons this is so significant is because, just for a regular
reader, it's going to be really interesting because it turns the story of the
gospel on its head so that what was the villain had become now the hero.
Now I should say that for scholars this isn't going to turn a lot on its head
because this is the sort of thing that scholars have grown to expect from
Gnostic gospels. And the form of Gnosticism found in this gospel is very much
like the form of Gnosticism we've known from other texts. But most people, of
course, don't read these other texts, and so they don't know about them. But
I think they'll read the gospel of Judas because it's really--it's inherently
interesting, and it paints a view of the world that's very different from the
Christian view that ended up winning out.
GROSS: Does it make Jesus' death less of a tragedy since in this version of
the story Jesus tells Judas to turn him in? Jesus is prepared for this death.
Mr. EHRMAN: Right. The early Christians had a large range of ways of
understanding why Jesus died and what it all meant. In this particular story,
it means something quite different from the orthodox view that came to triumph
in Christianity. Jesus' death came to be understood as a sacrifice for sins,
and so even in this traditional understanding of the story, Jesus willingly
dies because he needs to die for the sins of the world. In the gospel of
Judas, that's not why he dies. In the gospel of Judas, he dies because he
needs to escape the trappings of his material body. And Judas then is the
hero because he's the one who allows it to happen by turning Jesus over to the
authorities. So in this gospel, the death of Jesus shows his spirit escaping
his material self. And those who are true followers of Jesus will also
do--they'll do the same thing. They'll also escape from the material
trappings of their body.
So unlike the orthodox view, in this gospel, Jesus is not going to be raised
from the dead because the whole point is to escape the body, not to return to
it. Christians won't be raised from the dead. Those who have the true secret
knowledge will escape their mortal bodies and return to their heavenly homes.
So this is a point of view that stands quite at odds with the view that ended
up becoming the dominant view within Christianity.
GROSS: I'm thinking this must be such an interesting time to be a scholar of
the New Testament and the Gnostic gospels. You know, there's so much
politically, socially, in pop culture, just like in every aspect of cults now
that relates in some way to the Bible. People are very interested in it. You
know, "The Da Vinci Code"'s coming out in a movie adaptation. So you have a
lot to tell people outside of academia as well as inside. So it must be an
exciting time for you to be doing the work you're doing.
Mr. EHRMAN: Well, it's very exciting, especially for those of us who have
grown interested in the noncanonical material. I mean, the New Testament, of
course, continues to be the best-selling book of all time, and--as it should
be. But people have grown interested in knowing that there are other gospels
that didn't make it into the New Testament, the gospel of Judas being the most
recent discovery. And these other gospels are worth reading, as are other
books that didn't make it into the canon. And one reason is because it shows
what some scholars have been saying for many years, that early Christianity
was extremely diverse with different people saying different things that later
came to be branded as heretical but at the time were simply their points of
This diversity of early Christianity is found throughout all of these
noncanonical texts, and it's important, I think. It's not just interesting,
but it's also important because Christianity today is extremely diverse,
religion is extremely diverse, our entire society is extremely diverse. And
it's good to know that, in the earliest centuries of Christianity, there was
this wide range of diversity. In part, because by recognizing the diversity
of early Christianity, I think we can become a little bit more tolerant of
diversity. Instead of insisting that we have a corner on the truth, it's
worth realizing that, in fact, the truth has been shaped by historical and
cultural factors so that what we accept as commonplace or as commonsensical,
at one time was, in fact, a disputed idea. Once we see how diverse
Christianity was in the early centuries, I think you can make us more
appreciative of diversity and hopefully then more tolerant of diversity today.
GROSS: Since you've--earlier--since earlier you wrote a book about truth and
fiction in "The Da Vinci Code," are you braced for the opening of the movie
and for all the questions people will want to know about what's true and
Mr. EHRMAN: Well, absolutely. This "Da Vinci Code" business has long legs,
and so my book just came out in paperback and so, you know, it seems like for
the last two years, I've done nothing but talk about "The Da Vinci Code," and
it looks like that's not going to go away any time soon.
GROSS: Well, Bart Ehrman, thanks for coming back to FRESH AIR. We really
enjoyed talking with you.
Mr. EHRMAN: It's my pleasure. Thanks for having me.
GROSS: Bart Ehrman's new book is called "Peter, Paul and Mary Magdalene."
Ehrman chairs the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North
Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Coming up, Bruce Springsteen has a new CD featuring songs associated with Pete
Seeger, and Ken Tucker has a review. This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Review: Rock critic Ken Tucker reviews Bruce Springsteen's new
album "We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions"
TERRY GROSS, host:
Bruce Springsteen's new album is a departure for him. It's called "We Shall
Overcome: The Seeger Sessions." And it features Springsteen singing folk
songs made famous by Peter Seeger. Springsteen recorded the album over the
course of three one-day sessions accompanied by a large group of musicians
playing acoustic instruments. Rock critic Ken Tucker says the result is not
your typical folk album.
(Soundbite of "Old Dan Tucker")
Mr. BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN: One, two, three, four. (Singing) "Now old Dan Tucker
was a fine old man, washed his face in a frying pan, combed his hair with a
wagon wheel and died with a toothache in his heel.
Get out the way, old Dan Tucker, you're too late to get your supper. Get out
the way, old Dan Tucker, you're too late to get your supper."
Mr. KEN TUCKER: For a guy whose own ventures into folk songwriting tend to
be sober, even morose, affairs, just think of the admirable but weighty and
often fraught music on an album like "The Ghost of Tom Joad." Bruce
Springsteen certainly knows how to bring the folkiness into folk music on "The
Seeger Sessions." Selecting a batch of songs that the 86-year-old folk legend
has recorded over the years, many of them traditional public domain songs,
part of the social fabric of America, Springsteen has rethought familiar words
and melodies. Rather than the simple banjo and guitar arrangements that
Seeger used as a solo performer as part of his '50s group The Almanac Singers,
Springsteen assembled a large group that includes fiddles, horns, piano and
accordion. He mixes genres, proving that this durable material holds up, can
indeed be freshly heard even by people who have heard the songs a thousand
times. Listen, for example, to his version of the gospel spiritual, `Oh,
Mary, Don't You Weep,' rendered as a kind of Dixieland...(unintelligible).
(Soundbite of "Oh, Mary, Don't You Weep")
Mr. SPRINGSTEEN: (Singing) "Well, if I could, I surely would, stand on the
rock where Moses stood. Pharaoh's army riding round me. Oh, Mary, don't you
weep. Oh, Mary, don't you weep, don't mourn. Oh, Mary, don't you weep, don't
mourn. Pharaoh's army got drowned. Oh, Mary, don't you weep.
Well, Mary walked three lengths and chains from every land was Jesus and me.
Pharaoh's army got drowned. Oh, Mary, don't you weep.
Oh, Mary, don't you weep, don't mourn. Oh, Mary, don't you weep, don't mourn.
Pharaoh's army got drowned. Oh, Mary, don't you weep."
Mr. TUCKER: Flip the CD over and you get a DVD of Springsteen and his
assiduously ragtag crew performing a half dozen of the album's songs.
Everyone gathered in a room on Springsteen's home property, laughing, joking,
working hard. Springsteen tosses off one observation that I think is crucial
to the success of his achievement here. He observes that many of these songs
get, quote, "lost because they haven't been recontextualized again." That is
they become frozen in the sound and time of the recording you may remember
from your youth or whenever you first encountered it. For example, I've been
listening to various, always mechanical centurion versions of "John Henry" all
my life, it seems. I dreaded hearing Springsteen sing this old chestnut until
I actually heard the fierce attack that he brings to it.
(Soundbite of "John Henry")
Mr. SPRINGSTEEN: (Singing) "When John Henry was a little baby, sitting on
his daddy's knee, he picked up a hammer and little piece of steel and cried,
`Hammer's going to be...(unintelligible)...Lord, Lord, Hammer's going to be a
Now the captain, he said of John Henry, I'm going to bring us steam train
around. I'm going to bring a steam train out on these tracks. I'm going to
knock that steel on down, yeah, yeah, I'm going to knock that steel on down.
John Henry called his captain. The man ain't nothing but a man. Before I let
this steel drill beat me down, I'm going to die with a hammer in my hand,
Lord, Lord. Die with a hammer in my hand. (Unintelligible)."
Mr. TUCKER: When Springsteen and company go after "John Henry," it sounds as
though a locomotive was bearing down on the railroad tracks right behind him,
and he's working furiously to keep imminent doom at bay. In much of this
music, Springsteen is continuing what Pete Seeger is quoted as characterizing
in a recent New Yorker profile as guerilla cultural tactics, which means, in
one sense, reminding audiences of today that many of these songs come out of
struggle, out of rage, despair and pressure releasing pleasure. Not just on
songs here that became anthems for civil rights movements such as "We Shall
Overcome" and "Eyes on the Prize" but also a deceptively jaunty tune like "Pay
My Money Down," which you realize is not just an old sea shanty but a demand
to be given money earned on a long trip in the voice of workers united. From
the sound of this album, Springsteen and his pals had a lot of fun
recontextualizing this music. They also met the artistic challenge of
reintroducing it to a new generation that can hear its messages anew.
GROSS: Ken Tucker is editor at large for Entertainment Weekly. He reviewed
Bruce Springsteen's new album "We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions."
(Soundbite of "Jacob's Ladder")
Mr. SPRINGSTEEN: (Singing) "We are climbing Jacob's ladder. We are climbing
Jacob's ladder. We are climbing Jacob's ladder. We are brothers, sisters,
all. Every round..."
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
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