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Why Not Believe in a Different Kind of God?

I have been talking about why suffering is a “problem” in the Jewish and Christian traditions, and here I would like to reflect a bit on a point that some commenters have made, that it is a problem if and only if one has a certain conception of God as a being who is all-powerful, loving, and active in the world.  Someone who has a different understanding of the divine being – or divine beings – almost certainly won’t have this problem. I will let others on the blog comment on divine beings in other modern religious traditions, outside of traditional Christianity.   But I will say that the pagan world in which Christianity originally began, there were much easier answers to why people suffer if there are powerful deities in the world.  The key is that in the ancient world, everyone except Jews acknowledged that there were *lots* of other deities, at all kinds of level and of all sorts of temperament.  Some divine beings could be hateful, malicious, and antagonistic.   Can’t do much about [...]

2018-01-17T00:20:06-05:00June 30th, 2017|Public Forum, Reflections and Ruminations|

The Classic “Problem” of Suffering

I have indicated a bit in previous posts on why the Problem of Suffering is a “problem.”  Here I want to explain just a bit further, before going on, in later posts, with the question about how and why it became a problem for me personally, in my movement away from Christianity to agnosticism.   Here is what I say about “the problem” as it is classically understood, by philosophers who wrestle with the issue of “theodicy,” in my book God’s Problem. *********************************************************** Theodicy is a word invented by one of the great intellectuals and polymaths of the seventeenth century, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, who wrote a lengthy treatise trying to explain how and why there can be suffering in the world if God is all powerful and wants the absolute best for people.   The term is made up of two Greek words: theos, which means “God,” and dikē, which means “justice.”  Theodicy, in other words, refers to the problem of how God can be “just” or “righteous” given the fact there is so much suffering in [...]

2020-04-03T02:10:58-04:00June 28th, 2017|Public Forum, Reflections and Ruminations|

Two Unsatisfactory Solutions to the Problem of Suffering

In this thread I have started to grapple with the question of how there can be a good, loving, and powerful God in charge of the world in the face of the massive suffering experienced by the human race – not just in general terms (“there sure is a lot of suffering out there!”) but in very specific concrete terms, as what individuals experience.   What we experience.  What you have experienced.  How does one make sense of personal suffering (especially intense suffering) in a Judeo-Christian world in which it is widely believed that there is a God who is sovereign and in control? One of the most interesting things about this question is that – unlike anything else I ever encounter, think about, read about, or write about in my career as a biblical scholar – this is a question that virtually *everyone* has reflected on and has an opinion about.  Just about everyone.   Even those who say “I have no idea!” are invariably people who have thought about it and realized that none of [...]

2020-04-03T02:11:11-04:00June 27th, 2017|Public Forum, Reflections and Ruminations|

The Kind of Suffering that is a Problem

I’m not completely sure when I first started realizing that the enormous amount of suffering in the world, so much of it completely gratuitous, is a problem for anyone who believes that there is a loving and powerful God who is in control of what happens.   Before reflecting on the evolution of my own thinking on the problem from years ago, let me stress a couple of points. First I am talking about enormous suffering.   I am not talking about the small and even not so small aches and pains of daily life – the broken wrists or torn ligaments, the fender-benders, the shattered relationships, the worries about the mortgage, or the loss of a loved one.  Such things, in my view, do not call into question the existence of God, because they could well be explained if there is a loving and powerful God in charge of the world.  They could, for example, be “teaching us something,” or molding our character, or making us more grateful for the (other) good things we have (no [...]

2020-04-03T02:11:24-04:00June 26th, 2017|Public Forum, Reflections and Ruminations|

My Role in Editing My Most Important Book that No One Has Heard Of.

Just one question in this week’s blog, about a book that I edited that most readers of the blog have never heard of, let alone read, but that is probably one of the most important books I’ve ever been involved with.   QUESTION: Dr. Ehrman, in your first and second edition of The Text of the New Testament in Contemporary Research: Essays on the Status Quaestionis that you co-edited with Dr. Michael Holmes, what was your role in editing, especially since some articles were beyond your admitted expertise? - Dr. Michael Holmes is also the author of The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations and The Greek New Testament, among other works.   RESPONSE: This is actually a terrific question, but before addressing it directly I need to provide a bit of background.  The book this person is asking about is in the field of “textual criticism” in its technical sense, that is, the study of how to reconstruct the original text of the New Testament given the fact that we don’t have the [...]

Why I Was Afraid to Become an Agnostic

I started feeling the tug toward agnosticism sometime during my PhD program.  I remember clearly a particular moment, and it was, somewhat ironically, while I was serving as the pastor of the Princeton Baptist Church. Even though I was incredibly busy at the time (I was taking a full load of graduate seminars, preparing to take my PhD exams, serving as a Teaching Assistant for a class taught by Bruce Metzger, AND serving as the pastor of the church) I enjoyed the ministry very much.  Well, parts of the ministry.  I have never enjoyed transition rituals very much:  baptisms, weddings, funerals, and the like.  And of course pastoring a church involves doing such things.   And I wasn’t thrilled with visiting the sick – I was a bit out of my depth on that one.  But I did very much enjoy interactions with the people I worked with in the church, and I especially liked preaching nearly every week. I remember thinking at the time, though, that ... Only Members can read the rest of this [...]

Why Even Bother Being a Liberal Christian?

Some people have asked me, and I have asked myself, why, as a liberal Christian, did I continue to “believe,” or at least to act as if I believed?   I didn’t think Jesus was literally born of a virgin and I wasn’t sure if he was physically raised from the dead.  I didn’t think that he existed before he came into the world, let alone that he had been God from eternity past.  I didn’t think there was a hell and I didn’t know about heaven.  I believed in the Big Bang and evolution, not in creation.   I thought the Bible was filled with mistakes, historical inaccuracies, contradictions, and discrepancies, that its authors were fully human and were (simply) providing their views of this that or the other thing.  So why did I go to church every week, say the creed, sing the hymns, say my prayers, confess my sins, take communion, teach adult education, and all the rest? I’m not sure I’ve ever explained this to anyone before, though I certainly explained it to [...]

Was Jesus Made Up? A Blast from the Past.

In browsing through some old posts, I came across this one from five years ago, in which I deal with two questions I still today get asked about the "evidence" that Jesus did, or did not, exist.  The post deals with pointed issues raised by my colleague in the field, Ben Witherington.  The answers still seem germane to me today, as the question of Jesus' existence has simply ratcheted up, all these years later. Some of Ben Witherington’s most popular books are The Jesus Quest, and The Problem with Evangelical Theology, among others. *********************************************************************************** Ben Witherington, a conservative evangelical Christian New Testament scholar, has asked me to respond to a number of questions about my book Did Jesus Exist, especially in light of criticism I have received for it (not, for the most part, from committed Christians!). His blog is widely read by conservative evangelicals, and he has agreed to post the questions and my answers without editing, to give his readers a sense of why I wrote the book, what I hoped to accomplish [...]

How Biblical Discrepancies Can Be Theologically Liberating for a Christian

I have been trying to show that the portrayal of Jesus going to his death in Mark’s Gospel is radically different from the portrayal in Luke’s Gospel.  I’ve been making this comparison for a purpose, in order to show as clearly as I can that reading the Bible historically – seeing its discrepancies – does not compromise its value.  On the contrary, as I came to see as a committed Christian who was no longer a conservative evangelical, this way of reading the Bible *increases* its value. A person can still revere the Bible while thinking there are contradictions and discrepancies in it, not only in small things but in large things.  But one has to understand it in a non-fundamentalist way to do so.   The point of finding discrepancies is *not* so you can go away saying that the Bible is worthless (“bunch of contradictions”) but, on the contrary, so you can recognize the vast depths of its theological meaning, as seen precisely *in* the (big) differences you find in it. Here is how [...]

How Did Judas Iscariot Die? Readers’ Mailbag June 18, 2017

Two questions in this week’s Readers’ mailbag.  The first concerns the very strange tradition about how Judas Iscariot actually died, as found in the writings of the early church father Papias; the second is about modern evangelical Christian biblical scholars: how do they deal with the fact that our manuscripts contain so many textual variants?  If you have a question, feel free to ask, and I’ll add it to the ever growing mailbag.   QUESTION: Papias didn’t think very highly of Judas. I can’t remember exactly what he said, is his version closer to Matthew or Acts? Or a different tradition altogether?   RESPONSE: First some background.  Papias is one of the fascinating and virtually unknown figures from the early church.  He is normally thought to have been writing around 120 or 130 CE.  His major work was a five-volume discussion of the teachings of Jesus, called Exposition of the Sayings of the Lord.  We very much regret that we no longer have this book – it would have been the first known explanation of/commentary [...]

A Very Different Portrayal of Jesus’ Death

I am talking about how I came to understand and appreciate the Bible once I realized that there were widely different perspectives presented in one author or another – even when talking about the same thing.  The example I’m using is the Gospel portrayals of Jesus’ death.  In my previous post I laid out how Mark depicts it; here I will discuss how Luke does.  What I came to see (back when I was a graduate student, still a committed Christian but no longer a fundamentalist) was that it was both fruitless and impoverished to think the two Gospels were both trying to say the same thing.   Each of them is rich in meaning, but they meaning they ascribe to the event is very different.  Failing to appreciate the difference means failing to understand each author and the point that he is trying to make. Here is what I say about Jesus’ death in Luke, in contrast to Mark, in my book Jesus Interrupted. ******************************************************** Luke’s account is also very interesting, thoughtful, and moving.  But [...]

2020-04-03T02:13:54-04:00June 16th, 2017|Canonical Gospels, Public Forum|

How a Non-Historical Account Can Be Meaningful: The Death of Jesus in Mark

I am now at a point where I can explain how I read the Bible when I was a committed Christian who was not, however, a conservative evangelical convinced that the Bible was a completely inerrant revelation from God without any discrepancies or differences in it.  As I have already indicated, my new way of reading of the Bible did not denigrate the Bible at all, as often happens when people realize there are mistakes in it and come away saying something like:  “It’s worthless, just a pile of contradictions!”  That wasn’t my view at all. On the contrary, the differences revealed the true richness of the Christian tradition.  The Gospels, rather than simply being completely accurate accounts of what really happened were theological reflections on the significance of Jesus.  Different reflections, by different authors, all of whom had something to teach me as someone who was himself wrestling with the significance of Jesus.  One way to see the true depth of these different reflections is to compare them carefully with one another.  I explain [...]

2020-04-03T02:14:06-04:00June 15th, 2017|Canonical Gospels, Public Forum|

A New Way of Reading the Bible

I have been discussing how I experienced a radical change in my Christian faith, from being a conservative evangelical to being a more open-minded and better informed Christian.  I can now begin to talk about how my new way of understanding the faith intersected with the scholarship I was involved with in pursuing the academic study of the Bible. As a budding biblical scholar, I had come to see that the Bible was filled with problems.  As a believer with a new perspective these problems were not detrimental to my faith but actually provided important insights that previously I simply had no access to. To explain that will take a couple of posts.  The overarching point is that the discrepancies, contradictions, and mistakes of the Bible reveal clearly that we are dealing here with different authors with different perspectives, and it is important to let *each* author speak for himself to see what he wants to emphasize.  The viewpoint each one has is important, and it is crucial not to confuse the message of one [...]

2020-04-29T16:05:29-04:00June 14th, 2017|Public Forum, Reflections and Ruminations|

How Can Paul Say that Jesus Appeared to “The Twelve”?

Here is an interesting question from my Readers’ Mailbag connected to the tradition that Judas Iscariot killed himself soon after Jesus’ death, leaving only eleven disciples.  Did Paul know about this tradition?  Why does he seem to think there were still twelve disciples after the resurrection?   QUESTION: What do you think about Paul saying that Jesus appeared to the "twelve" (Apostles) after his resurrection? (1 Cor. 15:5) I find this to be a big mistake; given the multiple gospel stories about Judas's betrayal and subsequent suicide. Wouldn't Paul have known that there were only eleven Apostles at that time?   RESPONSE: Ah, an interesting question, and answering it involves a number of rather unexpected complexities.   The basic question: does Paul know that Judas Iscariot betrayed Jesus and afterward committed suicide? The first issue to address: who among the authors of the New Testament does know about the suicide of Judas?  Here’s an interesting point.  It is not “multiple” authors.  There is, in fact, only one: the author of Matthew (see 27:5).  Judas’s death is [...]

More of What I Believed When I Was a Committed (non-fundamentalist) Christian

Yesterday I started explaining what it was I believed when I left fundamentalism but remained a committed Christian – one who realized that the Bible was not at all an infallible book but was still a person of faith.   I’ve never talked about any of this before in print, either on the blog or in any of my books.  One reason for wanting to do so now is that I think I must have given some people the false impression that I went from being a fundy to being an agnostic in one step, that once I came to see that my fundamentalist views were just wrong, I immediately became a non-believer, having no other options to fall back on.  In fact it didn’t happen that way, at all.  I was a committed Christian for many years after giving up on conservative evangelicalism.  Here is more of what I believed at the time. The ultimate teaching of the Gospel was love. Love of God.  Love of neighbor.  Jesus not only taught this ethic and lived it [...]

What I Believed as a Committed but but non-Fundamentalist Christian

It is a little hard to encapsulate what I thought, believed, and practiced during those years when I had moved away from being a hard-core Bible-believing conservative (as I was in college) but remained a committed Christian (as I was for years after that).   The change did not come overnight so that one day I was one thing (a fundy) and the next I was something else (a liberal).  It was a gradual change marked by important moments and key shifts.   But let me pick a time in my life and try to explain what my faith meant to me at that time.  This will take a couple of posts. Quick biographical background: when I was doing my PhD in New Testament Studies, a lot of things happened to me personally that affected my faith.  My studies, of course, were one thing.  But outside of that was my daily life.  I was attending the small but interesting Princeton Baptist church, which was part of the American Baptist denomination (very different, and far more diverse, than [...]

Can (or Should) We Change the Canon of Scripture? A Blast from the Past

  Digging around in posts from five years ago now, I came across this one --as interesting to me now as it was then!  Hope you think so too.  It's a response to a penetrating question. QUESTION: Given the criteria used to determine what would go on to constitute the New Testament canon, how is it that Hebrews and the book of Revelation remain part of the canon? I understand that Christians came to believe that they were authored by the apostles which is why they made it into the canon, but we now know that they weren't authored by Paul or John..so why are they still in the NT? RESPONSE: Interesting idea!   I sometimes get asked what I would exclude from the canon if given the choice, and I almost always say 1 Timothy (because of what it says about women in 2:11-15, and how the passage has been used for such horrible purposes over the years).  But, well, it ain’t gonna happen.  I don’t get a vote. And that’s the problem with Hebrews [...]

Update on my Publication Plans

A couple of people have asked me about the status of my two books – the one that is finished and coming out, The Triumph of Christianity: How A Forbidden Religion Swept the World, and the one I am now doing my research on The Invention of the Afterlife: A History of Heaven and Hell. First, Triumph.  There is indeed news about this one, and I can’t decide if it’s good news or bad news.  It feels (emotionally) like it’s bad but I think it is probably good.   My publisher, Simon & Schuster, has decided to delay publication from this coming September until the following February.  The new publication date is February 13. There are no glitches or problems with publishing it earlier.  It is done and ready to go.  I have read through two sets of page proofs, it has been copy-edited multiple times, it is sitting there waiting to be run off and sent out.  But for a variety of complicated reasons Simon & Schuster wants to wait till February. The short story [...]

What I Came To Believe About the Bible

It is a little difficult for me to describe what I believed after I gave up on my view that the Bible was the inerrant revelation from God with no mistakes in it whatsoever.  In part that is because there was a long transition period, and over time my beliefs evolved as I studied more, talked with friends and colleagues more, encountered more ideas, thought more. I was in the perfect situation for this kind of study and reflection.  I was already a PhD student at Princeton Theological Seminary and I was literally surrounded by people who spent most of their days, every day, reading, studying, talking, and thinking about the Christian faith from both a personal and an academic perspective.  I spent every day for lunch with people doing research and thinking about the Christian faith.  Every day I read significant books and articles on everything having to do with ancient Christianity.  Every day I had conversations about religious topics – mainly about the academic study of the New Testament and early Christianity, but [...]

What Really Happened to Me: Demythologizing the New Testament

As I suggested in yesterday’s post, the reason I’ve been trying to show that biblical scholars who still revere the Bible but recognize that it is, even so, filled with mistakes, discrepancies, and contradictions is to explain what happened to my faith once I realized that the Bible was not the inerrant revelation from God that I had always assumed it was. It is amazing how often people tell me – usually with a touch of personal complacency – that the reason I lost my faith was that I was a fundamentalist.  If I had only had a more reasonable understanding of the faith (like *them* for example!) then the problems I encountered would not have led me to become an agnostic.  In their view, I am at heart still a fundamentalist. In their view I had thought (as a fundamentalist) that if every word in the Bible can’t be completely true and accurate, then none of it can be true and accurate, and that for that reason, once I realized there were mistakes in [...]

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