Book Review: Bart Ehrman’s Jesus Before the Gospels
How historically accurate are the Gospels? Can we know what Jesus really did?
Posted Apr 10, 2016
I’ve been a fan of Bart Ehrman’s work for a while now. He’s a New Testament scholar who has an uncanny ability to make the consensus of biblical scholars understandable and interesting. He has five New York Times best sellers (including two of my favorites: Misquoting Jesus and Jesus, Interrupted) and eight “Great Courses” with The Teaching Company. So when I was asked to review an advanced copy of his new book Jesus Before the Gospels, I had to jump at the chance.
But why am I posting a book review about the Bible on my logic blog? Because, as you shall soon see, Ehrman presents a host of arguments that would make a logician proud. Indeed, he expertly explicates a number of critical thinking lessons--about the reliability of memory and personal experience--that I often teach in my logic classes; he just applies them to questions about the Bible.
Why I Care (and So Should You)
Now I’m often asked why I, an atheist, “care so much about religion.” Why would I be interested in biblical scholarship if I don’t “believe in” the Bible? But part of the reason I am an atheist is because I care about religion and the Bible—because I care enough to study it. As it’s often said, the quickest route to atheism is to study the Bible.
Now, Ehrman himself might disagree and quickly point to a plethora of his friends and colleagues who are biblical experts—who, by the way, also agree with him on almost all major points of Biblical interpretation—but are also Christians. (Ehrman himself is an agnostic, but not because of what he has learned studying the Bible.) Nevertheless, for me, it was my study of religion, including my study of the Bible, which led me to conclude that no god (including the Christian one) exists. And regardless of whether reading the Bible leads one to atheism or not, it is the case that (in general) atheists know more about religion, and the Bible, than those who are religious. So the fact that I am an atheist interested in religion is not unique and should not be surprising.
Whatever intensive study leads to, anything that has had the kind of impact on the world that both religion and the Bible have had is worthy of such study. And no one makes it easier to study the Bible than Ehrman.
The Question of Jesus Before the Gospels
All that said, the purpose of Ehrman’s new book is in no way to try to persuade one to be agnostic or atheist—or Christian for that matter. The purpose of most of his books is to simply educate the layperson about the consensus conclusions of biblical scholars. The purpose of Jesus Before the Gospels is slightly different, but still along the same line. He’s examining what scholarship, biblical and otherwise, can tell us about how accurate the Gospels are. How accurately do they describe the life of the historical Jesus? Do they reflect what truly occurred? What was the Jesus who existed before the writing of the Gospels actually like? What did he say? What did he do?
Ever since I was a lad, memorizing entire books of the Bible as a bible quizzer, I’ve often wondered how accurate the biblical Gospels are. Even then, I recognized there were inconsistencies between the stories they told. Did Jesus feed 4000 or 5000? Was Jesus silent before Pilate, or did they hold a lengthy conversation? Was Jesus crucified on the day of the Passover meal (Friday, as in the book of Mark), or the day before (Thursday, as in the book of John)? This didn’t weaken my belief back then; I wasn’t an inerrantist about the Bible and I realized that people tell stories differently. But still, I wondered which version of events was most accurate.
When I studied religion in college, however, my questions deepened. I learned that the Gospels were not written during the life of Jesus by his disciples—or even by eyewitnesses—but by non-eyewitnesses decades after the supposed events in question. They were even written in a different language (Greek) than the one Jesus and his disciples would have most likely spoken (Aramaic). (I also learned to read biblical Greek.) In fact, the disciples were probably illiterate; they likely couldn’t read, much less write. Instead, Biblical scholars agree that the writers of the Gospels based them on “oral traditions.” In other words, the stories and sayings of Jesus’ life were passed down through multiple generations and languages until they were written down.
What’s more, I learned that there were multiple gospels that never made it into the Bible—like the gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Philip, just to name a few. And these gospels told stories that clearly never happened. Jesus didn’t bully others as a child with his magic powers (like in the Infancy Gospel of Thomas). He didn’t tame dragons (yes, dragons!) during the Holy Family’s trip to Egypt (like in the gospel of pseudo-Matthew). He wasn’t taller than the sky when he emerged from the tomb (like in the Gospel of Peter). Such stories were either completely fabricated by their authors or by those passing along the stories about Jesus by word of mouth. Other stories in these gospels were, at best, grandiose embellishments of stories rooted in fact. This made me wonder: had the authors of the biblical Gospels fabricated or embellished any of their stories? How reliable was the oral tradition that preserved the stories about Jesus before they were written down?
Essentially, this is a question of memory. How accurate were peoples’ reports of Jesus’ life? How well did people remember the stories that emerged from those reports? How reliably were they passed on by the individuals and groups that retold them? And ultimately, what does this tell us about the accuracy of the Gospel writers’ memories of Jesus’ life? It is this question that Ehrman tries to answer in Jesus Before the Gospels.
Ehrman’s Argument: The Gospels Aren’t Accurate Because Human Memory is Too Fallible
To answer this question, Ehrman not only looks at biblical scholarship, but at what we have learned about memory—both individual and social—and how accurately it preserves the past. The upshot? It’s unlikely the Gospels are very historically accurate. Neither human memory, nor our ability to pass on stories, are that reliable. As the stories of Jesus life were passed on through multiple communities and multiple languages, they were altered, elaborated upon, and new ones were even fabricated.
Now, there are multiple arguments people have given for the reliability of the memory of the people who passed on the stories of Jesus before they were written down. Aren’t they based on eyewitness accounts? And weren’t they passed on in oral (pre-literate) cultures that couldn’t write anything down? Thus wouldn’t they have had to have learned carefully to recount and then pass stories down accurately? Some have even suggested that oral cultures do this still today; couldn’t the communities passing down the stories of Jesus been using the same techniques?
Ehrman addresses such arguments and shows why they don’t hold any water. Let’s look at three major objections to such arguments.
Objection 1: Eyewitnesses aren’t reliable.
First of all, not only do we know that the Gospels weren’t written by eyewitnesses (which Ehrman makes clear in chapter 3), it’s exceedingly unlikely that any of the gospels writers had access to anything even remotely close to an eyewitness account. They were writing decades after anyone who could have legitimately claimed to be an eyewitness to Jesus’ life. To boot, as Ehrman makes clear, it seems that few (if any) Christian communities were founded by eyewitnesses.
Second, eyewitness testimony has been studied extensively, and it’s quite clear that (as Ehrman puts it) “eyewitness are notoriously inaccurate.” Not only are our immediate perceptions not always as accurate as we think they are, but our memories of what we perceive are even less reliable.  Research (that Ehrman skillfully summarizes in chapter 2) has shown that we readily edit, tweak and confabulate our memories; indeed, the more often we recall something, the more we change our memory of it.
What’s worse, this is a process that’s beyond our control. We’re usually not even aware we are doing it. And the more unusual or high stress the experience, the more extreme our memory editing becomes. Indeed, it’s pretty easy to get people to form false memories; you can even get a person to form a false memory of them doing something that they never actually did (things even as crazy as proposing marriage to a Pepsi Machine). As Ehrman puts it, “People remember all sorts of things, some of them in vivid detail, even though they never happened at all.” This is why eyewitness testimony is becoming less and less useful in the courtroom.
So even if the gospel writers had somehow located surviving eyewitnesses and were transcribing and translating their reports into a different language, we still wouldn’t have good reason to think the Gospels were historically accurate. Especially given the time that would have elapsed between the original events and the eyewitness’ retelling, we wouldn’t have good justification for thinking that the events happened as stated, or even that happened at all. And our justification drops to almost zero once we realize that, in actual fact, even if a story about Jesus did originate from eyewitness reports, those reports would have gone through hundreds and hundreds of retellings (in at least two languages) before they reached the writers of the Gospels. We’ve all played “the telephone game,” where a group of people try to pass on a story one at a time. The last story told is always different than first. This is why you shouldn’t believe rumors.
Objection 2: Oral Tradition Doesn’t Reliably Preserve Stories
Now this latter fact doesn’t bother some because they imagine that since the communities persevering Jesus’ stories were illiterate (and thus purely oral), they would have had a special ability (above and beyond modern literate culture’s ability) to preserve the stories accurately. But as Ehrman makes clear, there is no evidence that this was the case. It’s just an assumption that conservative Christian Biblical scholars make—an assumption they have to make. Otherwise they have no reason to think the Gospels are in any way historically accurate.
Now “assumption” is my word. Ehrman does point to a few scholars who have argued that the oral tradition of the early Christians was accurate (that, as I might put it, it wasn’t equivalent to rumor-mongering). The problem is, these arguments don’t hold any weight.
Birger Gerhardsson, for example, argues that Jesus was a rabbi who forced his students to memorize his teachings word for word, a practice known from the Mishnah and the Talmud. Unfortunately, there is no evidence that this was the case, and pretty good evidence that it wasn’t. First, at best this practice started after the destruction of the Jewish temple in 70 CE (long after Jesus’ life). Second, the earliest records of such practices (in the Mishnah and Talmud) date to about 200 CE (extra-long after Jesus’ life). Last, the basic discrepancies between stories of the gospels make it very clear Jesus did not make his disciplines memorize his teachings—a fact for which defenders of Gerhardsson’s view can only make ad hoc excuses.
What about the early church’s ability to reliably pass on stories? Kenneth Bailey has argued that early Christians probably passed on the stories accurately because there are places in the Middle East today that do. He speaks specifically of the haflat samar village meetings where stories are recited and the community strictly monitors and corrects those reciting it; even catching one word out of place is cause for correction and shame.
The problems with this argument however, as Ehramn points out, are twofold. First, we again have no evidence at all that the early Christian communities participated in such a strict system; in fact the New Testament is pretty clear about how word of Jesus spread, and it didn’t include such practices. Second, Bailey’s reports of these meetings (and the stories’ accuracy) are based completely on his own personal experience. Follow up study on the haflat samar (by Theodore Weeden) showed that, even with these strict controls, the stories they told changed drastically over the years. For example, stories of the missionary John Hogg, which were supposedly preserved by the community, changed drastically between 1914 and the 1960s—so much so that “it is hard to believe they were actually the same story.” (Interestingly this is roughly the same amount of time the stories of Jesus would have been retold before being written down.)
So instead of proving that the gospels are accurate, the haflat samar example actually proves the opposite; even when you try to preserve memories and stories accurately through oral tradition, you can’t do it. How much more must the stories of the gospels changed given that no such controls were likely implemented, and eyewitnesses were unavailable for “fact-checking”?
Objection 3: Oral Cultures Aren’t Even Concerned about Accuracy
None of this should be surprising, however, because it aligns with the evidence we already have (and that Ehrman cites) about the reliability of group memories. It turns out, they are even more frail and faulty than individual memories. Put people in a group and they are less likely to be careful in trying to get things right; they are even more likely to edit their own memories to align with the recollection of others. As Ehrman goes on to point out in Chapter 5, not only does (a) the idea that the early Christians had a “super group memory” defy biology (first century Palestinians were biologically indistinguishable from us, and our memories are unreliable), and not only (b) did they lack a way to correct any errors in persevering the stories (like the ability to look it up in a book), but (c) strictly oral cultures don’t even have a concept of what it means for “two stories to be same”—at least, not as we understand it.
For us, two stories being the same means that their sequence of events match; they include the same facts, details and events—and if they are really the same, they match word for word. But since purely oral cultures have no way to check to make sure that two stories are the same in this sense, they don’t even have a concept for it. And that means they change their stories readily as they retell them. Asking them whether the story they are telling is accurate—whether it represents what “really happened”—may not even make sense to them. As Ehrman summarizes the work of Milman Parry and Albert Lord and their study of Yugoslavian singers who preserve epic poems as long as the Iliad and Odyssey,
“Those passing along traditions in oral cultures are not interested in preserving exactly the same thing. They are interested in making the same thing relevant for the new context. That necessarily involves changing it. Every time. For that reason, when someone in an oral culture claims that the current version of the tradition…is “the same” as an earlier one, they do not mean what we mean…the “gist” remains pretty much the same…but the details get changed. Often they get changed massively.
Parry saw that a singers’ retelling of a story would differ by thousands of lines from a previous telling—even when they were retelling their own story. Yet they still maintained it was “the same song.” And the findings of Parry and Lord have been replicated many times since. Interestingly enough, it turns out that the more the stories are recited, the more they get changed. As another researcher, Jan Vansina, put it, “It is…not surprising to find that very often the original testimony has disappeared altogether.”
Ehrman’s Conclusion: What We Can’t Know, and What we Can
The consequence of all this is clear: there is no way one could ever be justified in believing that the gospels, as a whole, give us an historically accurate picture of Jesus’ life. Neither does any individual gospel. That’s not to say, Ehrman suggests, that we can’t piece together some things that were likely true of the historical Jesus—the “Jesus before the gospels.” We just need to apply some basic textual analysis and look at the “gist” of the surviving stories. “Most scholars would agree,” he says, that Jesus was a Jew raised in Galilee, who (after being baptized by another) became an apocalyptic preacher who taught in parables, conflicted with Jewish authorities, and chose twelve of his followers to accompany him on a teaching mission; he traveled to Jerusalem in the last week of his life for Passover where he preached, likely gathered more followers, and then was arrested and crucified (likely under the charge for inciting a Jewish insurrection against Rome).
Now, I know some mythists who would disagree (namely David Fitzgerald and Richard Carrier); they take their criticism of the gospels even further and suggest that Jesus never existed as a historical person. But even setting such arguments aside, Ehrman’s “consensus view” doesn’t give us much to hang our hat on. No miracles, no resurrection—not even specifics about Jesus’ ethical teachings. And this “gist” of Jesus’ story was likely true of many apocalyptic preachers (which were common at the time) who were promising the overthrow of the Roman rule and a new independent Jewish state. (They eventually got the political revolution they sought in 66 CE, only to have their Jewish homeland destroyed, along with their Temple, in 70 CE )
The Takeaway: Four Major Points
There is much more to say about Ehrman’s book, but what I have laid out is what I take to be the main argument. And there are four significant consequences of this argument. The first two are my observations, the others are Ehrman’s.
Point 1: Hume was Right about Testimony
My first observation is this; Ehrman’s book is one long argument that supports Hume’ famous thesis that “no human testimony can have such force as to prove a miracle, and make it a just foundation for any system of religion.” Our memories, both individual and collective, are just not reliable enough. Even if Jesus actually did rise from the dead, the process by which the story of such an event would have been preserved would simply have been too frail and faulty—so much so that no one at the receiving end of it would be justified in believing what it reported. It would be more likely that the story was bogus, even if it wasn’t. And given the unreliability of eyewitness testimony, this would be true even if you learned of Jesus’ resurrection from the disciples themselves. Even if you could somehow be sure that they were not lying, it would be more likely that they were mistaken (e.g., about whether he was dead, about where the body was buried, etc.) or deceived (e.g., someone stole the body). Perhaps if you actually saw the resurrection for yourself…but even then, your own perception and memory would not be reliable enough to trust what it was telling you.
To be clear, I don’t think that the disciples conspired to lie or that someone stole the body. Neither is the best explanation. Both are still better explanations than “Jesus rose from the dead.” But I think the best explanation for why people came to believe that he rose from the dead is simply this: rumors that he was still alive got started after his death. This isn’t unheard of. Rumors about Elvis still being alive got started after his death. People believed in and loved him so much that they simply couldn’t believe that he had died, so they convinced themselves he didn’t—so much so that they actually started to think they saw him. Indeed, the encounter with “Jesus” of two disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35)—where they didn’t recognize Jesus until after he was gone—reads like an Elvis sighting. Of course, that account is likely not historical, but I imagine that something like it happened many times over among those who were followers of Jesus. Just like collections of Elvis sightings have popped up when “Elvis Lives” rumors take hold among his fans, Jesus sightings were likely common among his devoted followers after his death.
Point 2: Don’t Morally Blame the Authors (Completely)
Which brings me to my second point. Although the stories in the gospels are not historically accurate—they are exaggerated or fabricated stories that do not reflect what the historical Jesus was actually like—we cannot morally blame the authors of the gospels, or the community that passed on those stories, as if they are conspiratorial liars. They’re weren’t intentionally lying. They were human; just like us, when they recalled or retold something, they were bound to get it wrong. They were apt to let their own beliefs and biases color their memory or their retelling of the story. And they had no way to check for historical accuracy.
What’s more, they may not have even thought that they were recalling historical events; and if so, their audience probably knew this. As we saw with the Yugoslavian singers, the gospel writers may not have been interested in getting the story “right”—in telling the “same story” that had been passed on to them. They were likely more interested in making the story “relevant for the new context”—to deal with the struggles and concerns of their audience. They may have edited or even invented some of the stories, but it was for theological purposes—to make theological points—not necessarily to deceive their audience, who likely already knew the stories weren’t historically accurate.
Although, to be fair, I think there is some room for criticism. If they exaggerated or added a story about Jesus performing a miracle to convince others that Jesus was the messiah, or divine, I think that would be an immoral deception—and I’m sure that happened more than once. I think it’s pretty clear that the doubting Thomas story was added by John as a way to deal with those who (quite rationally) doubted that Jesus actually rose from the dead.
Point 3: You Can Still Be a Christian
That leads to a point Ehrman makes briefly in Jesus Before the Gospels, but makes emphatically in Chapter 8 of Jesus, Interrupted. You can realize all of this—that the Gospels are historically inaccurate, that they provide no good evidence of Jesus’ miracles or resurrection—and still be a Christian.
For one, you can still believe that Jesus’ miracles and resurrection are historical realities; you’ll just have to do so by faith (i.e., without justification). And for Ehrman, that’s perfectly fine. You just shouldn’t fool yourself into thinking you have proof—that you can rightly convince others by pointing to the “evidence” of the scriptures. But you can still have faith.
Secondly, Ehrman maintains, you don’t actually have to believe in the historicity of the Gospels for them to be meaningful stories—for them to inform your ethics and the way that you live. Even if Jesus never did exist, the stories about him still contain morals worth trying to live up to. You can still emulate the moral teachings of the Jesus in the Gospels even if they do not reflect historical reality. And if you do, you’re still a Christian—at least on some understandings of what it means to be a Christian. As (pseudo) Kahless once put it—Kahless is a Klingon religious savor figure from Star Trek—“Maybe the words are more important than the man.” (Star Trek: TNG: “Rightful Heir”)
Point 4: What This Tells Us About the Early Church
And that leads to what seems to be the central historical goal of Jesus Before the Gospels. Once we realize the gospels (both biblical and apocryphal) are historically inaccurate non-factual memories of Jesus—memories that were colored and informed by the struggles and beliefs of those retelling the stories—we can learn a lot about the communities that preserved those stories, and to whom the gospels were written. We can see their motivations for why they remembered Jesus as they did in the way they reconstructed and even invented memories of him. We can understand how they understood what “being a Christian” meant.
For example, the author of Mark (who, by the way, was not really an apostle or named Mark) was most likely writing to a community that lived through the time of the Jewish revolt (and subsequent massacre). They also knew that, during his lifetime, Jesus was understood by his followers (even his disciples) to be the Jewish messiah—not one equal to God himself, but a figure like King David who would overthrow the Roman rule and usher in the Kingdom of God. But, they wondered, how could he be the messiah given that he was crucified? Mark gives them an answer: because no one at the time understood what it meant to be the messiah. Before Jesus was to usher in the Kingdom, God intended for him to suffer and die “as a ransom for many.” Only later would he return to establish the Kingdom.
Why didn’t people realize this at the time? Mark reinterprets (misremembers) Jesus’ life to make sense of this. Mark says that Jesus intentionally kept his mission a secret; and he did tell his disciples, but they were just too dumb to understand. That’s why Jesus death was such a surprise to everyone. Mark seems to be letting his readers in on this secret for the very first time. He is reinterpreting what it means to be the messiah, and misremembering Jesus life to fit into that interpretation.
According to Mark, God’s plan also included a subsequent era in which followers of Jesus would suffer just like he did (which Mark’s community was currently experiencing). But not to worry, says Mark. Jesus will be returning soon, in judgement, to fulfill is ultimate goal as messiah and finally establish God’s Kingdom on Earth. That’s the promise God had made, through Jesus, to the Christian community…according to Mark.
The gospel of John, on the other hand, is written (again, not by John) in a completely different era—an era when the early Christian expectation of the Jesus’ “imminent return” was nearly a century old and thus beginning to look a bit silly. As a result, John remembers Jesus’ life in a completely different way. Although John still thinks part of Jesus’ mission is to suffer and die, Jesus’ ultimate goal is not to overthrow Roman rule and establish an Earthly Kingdom of God. That’s not the promise John’s Jesus makes. He instead promised his followers eternal life after death. Think John 3:16.
To make this offer, Jesus must be one with God himself. And so in John, Jesus doesn’t keep his mission or his true nature a secret, like he does in Mark. In John, the main purpose of his ministry is to declare who he is (one with God himself), prove it by performing miracles, and then do what is necessary to grant this enteral life to his followers by suffering and dying. The resurrection is the final proof that he was telling the truth.
Ehrman draws an analogy between how Mark and John remembered Jesus and how people in the American North and South remember the civil war. For the former, it was a war brought on by southern rebellion, motivated by their desire to keep slavery legal. For the latter, it was the war of northern aggression, motivated by their desire to keep southern states from governing themselves. Same war, different memory.
For Mark, Jesus was someone who would deliver his community from their suffering and bring judgement on the political authorities who were suppressing them. For John, Jesus was someone who promised and provided the means to enteral life. Same guy, different memory.
There’s much more to say, but I’ve gone on long enough. For those who recognize that the Bible is important to study, and get right, Ehrman's Jesus Before the Gospels is essential. Ehrman presents a much needed, brilliant argument—one that challenges unsubstantiated assumptions about the reliability of the Gospels that have gone unchallenged for years.
--A special thanks to Joel Shuman and Daniel Reynoso for their helpful suggestions on earlier drafts.
Copyright 2016, David Kyle Johnson
 Of course, there are still many less important matters about which to disagree.
 In other works, Ehrman makes clear that his agnosticism is a result of him thinking that there is no good answer to the philosophical problem of evil (i.e., the problem of suffering). See Jesus, Interrupted Chapter 8.
 Sutherland, J.J. “Survey: Atheists, Agnostics Know More About Religion Than Religious. (NPR, Sept. 28th, 2010.) http://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2010/09/28/130191248/atheists-and...
 Ehrman talks about this extensively on pages 81-83.
 P. 88.
 Both of these are points I make often in my critical thinking and logic classes, and are made expertly by Ted Schick in the fifth chapter of his book How To Think about Weird Things. (McGraw-Hill, 2013).
 P. 94
 P. 91.
 Arkowitz, Hal & Lilenfeld, Scott. “Why Science Tells Us Not To Rely on Eyewitness Accounts.” (Scientific American, January 1, 2010). http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/do-the-eyes-have-it/
 Clearly they didn’t actually do this, as this is certainly something they would have mentioned.
 See p. 70.
 P. 76
 For a full list, see pp. 149 & 194.
 For decent rundown of who has said what among the mythists, see the Wikipedia entry on it at: (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christ_myth_theory.) It’s worth noting that Ehrman’s Did Jesus Exist? is a defense of the idea that Jesus existed as a historical person. Richard Carrier mounted a lengthy reply to Ehrman in On the Historicity of Jesus.
 I defend this thesis in great detail in my paper “Justified Belief in Miracles is Impossible.” Science, Religion and Culture 2(2): 61-74. (2015)
 Here I’m setting aside the mythist's claim here that Jesus never existed. If they are right, equally plausible explanations for stories of Jesus resurrection are very easy to produce.
 See http://elvissightingsociety.org/ Of course, one major difference is that stories of Jesus’ resurrection caught on in a way that Elvis’ did not. This does not, however, entail that the stories of Jesus sightings are more likely accurate than stories of Elvis sightings. It instead speaks to the culture in which the stories circulated. They not only lacked a modern education (and thus were more gullible and credulous), but given their social situation, they likely needed to believe more. For more on how the “Elvis lives” phenomena can shed light on how rumors of Jesus' resurrection got started, see Nickel, Joe. “Elvis Lives! Investigating the Legends and Phenomena” Skeptical Briefs, Volume 19.4 (Skeptical Inquirer, Dec. 2009) at http://www.csicop.org/sb/show/elvis_lives_investigating_the_legends_and_...
 I would argue otherwise—that you should always proportion your belief to the evidence. I talk about the rationality of faith in the 11th lecture of my own Teaching Company Great Course: The Big Questions of Philosophy. http://www.thegreatcourses.com/courses/the-big-questions-of-philosophy.html
 It’s debatable as to whether belief in the resurrection is essential to being a Christian. I think most Christians today would say it is, but I know many academics who would disagree.
 See p. 125-130.
 I’m torn as to whether the original author of Mark thought Jesus was supposed to raise from the dead after three days, ascend and then return later—or if Mark didn’t think that the resurrection had happened yet, and was expecting that to be the way that Jesus returned (so that the resurrection would be the second coming). Marks’ early reference to “3 days” (14:58) is far from clear. And it’s my understanding that Mark didn’t originally include a resurrection account in his gospel; that was added later by scribes. From what he says in Jesus Before the Gospels, it seems Ehrman thinks Mark expected a resurrection, and then a second coming. Ehrman talks more about the confusing resurrection passage in Mark in Misquoting Jesus, pp. 65-68.
 Similar expectations of an imminent return are found in Matthew and Luke, although their understanding of Jesus is different than Mark’s. See Chapter 7.
 “No longer does [Jesus] deliver an apocalyptic proclamation about the massive suffering in store for the earth in the last days before the cataclysmic end of all things and the appearance of a cosmic judge of the earth who will bring the Kingdom of God to be ruled over by Jesus and his followers [as in Mark].” (p. 264)
 I think it’s interesting to realize that, in light of the fact that Mark’s promise had been falsified—Jesus had promised to return soon but did not—John chooses a promise that can’t be falsified. You could never prove whether a follower of Jesus was actually granted eternal life after their death. One might think of this as a kind of ad hoc excuse.
 Ehrman notes that the miracles in Mark are more a signal that “the end is near.” They are not offered as proof of Jesus' divine status, as they are in John.