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Sheep, Goats, and the Historical Jesus

By Dr. Adam Jones

Matthew 25: 31-46

I have had a longstanding interest in the historical Jesus and early Christianity, including the evolution of the core gospels. In reading the work of my favourite scholar of Christianity’s first decades and centuries, Bart Ehrman, I was struck by his analysis of Matthew 25, and the parable of the sheep and the goats.

Ehrman, by the way, has an interesting trajectory – raised as an evangelical Christian, he abandoned the evangelical movement and now no longer considers himself a believer in a personal God who intervenes in human lives and destinies. But I digress …

One reason is that Ehrman is convinced that, according to the historical-critical message, this is a parable that Jesus very likely told during his lifetime. Here’s why Ehrman believes so:

“One very good reason for thinking some such words were actually spoken by Jesus involves the very point of the passage People will enter the glorious kingdom of God, or be excluded to be destroyed by fire, because of their ethical activities, and for nothing else. Living a good life by helping those in need will earn a person salvation. The reason that suggests the passage – or something very much like it – represents Jesus’ actual words is very simple. The earliest followers of Jesus, after his death, were firmly convinced that it was faith in him – in particular, his death and resurrection – that could make a person right with God. … If a later Christian storyteller were to make up a saying and place it on Jesus’ lips about how one could be saved at the resurrection, would he indicate that salvation had nothing actually to do with believing in Jesus, but instead would involve doing all sorts of good things? Remember: the sheep not only did not believe in Jesus; they had never even heard of him. … We don’t know of any early Christian authors who thought that ‘being a good person’ in itself was enough to earn God’s rewards at the resurrection. And that means it is unlikely the passage was placed on Jesus’ lips by later Christians wanting him to say what they themselves believed.”

This is very similar to the various passages where Jesus declares that the kingdom of God will arrive before those living at the time have passed from the earth. See, for example, Matthew 24 immediately preceding: “Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened.”

In historical perspective, that was a failed prophecy, because the kingdom didn’t come about and still hasn’t two millennia later. Instead, Jesus was condemned, tortured, and killed by the Roman state, and the first generations of Christians, like all those since, died without witnessing the Son of Man and the Kingdom of God. That’s rather inconvenient from a scriptural viewpoint, again suggesting strongly that it was a core belief and prophecy of Jesus’s.

Another reason I’m personally drawn to the parable is that it shows us Jesus not as the serene, touchy-feely type, but as an apocalyptic prophet burning with anger about imperial tyranny and the pervasive injustices of social relations in Israel. He warns direly that a radical intervention by God is imminent, sending “the Son of Man” – who in Matthew is clearly not Jesus himself – to separate the wheat from the chaff. Those who are or were godly and compassionate in their lives and behaviour, including pagans who had never seen or even heard of Jesus, will inherit God’s kingdom – in real time or via bodily resurrection. The rest will be cast into the eternal fire.

But according to Ehrman, this is an eternal fire, not an eternal punishment, as he goes into in great detail in his book Heaven and Hell. The price of transgression for the “goats” is annihilation through death, final and forever -- not eternal suffering and torture, while the sheep will enjoy eternal life.

Lastly, why sheep and goats? Ehrman speculates that sheep’s wool was much more valuable than goat’s milk – so the animals served a useful metaphorical purpose. Tough luck for goats.

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