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A Better Kind of Fundamentalist

In today’s post I’d like to go back to that intriguing little article by Louis Markos in the journal First Things, which he entitled “Errant Ehrman.”   If you’ll recall from my post last week, Markos starts the article by indicating that he felt “great pity” for me because I was the wrong kind of fundamentalist back when I was a conservative Christian.   My problem, he indicates, is that I applied modern standards to decide whether the Bible was inerrant.  Here are his words:

He [Ehrman] was taught, rightly, that there are no contradictions in the Bible, but he was trained, quite falsely, to interpret the non-contradictory nature of the Bible in modern, scientific, post-Enlightenment terms. That is to say, he was encouraged to test the truth of the Bible against a verification system that has only existed for some 250 years…..

And so, as I pointed out last time, the right kind of true believer is obviously one who does not “test the truth of the Bible” by modern standards using modern criteria, but only by pre-modern, pre-Enlightenment ones.  I suppose I could live with this criticism if I had even the most remote sense that Markos really means it.   But I simply don’t think he does.   And not only for the reasons I pointed out last week.   Here’s another strange thing.  The prompt for this discussion of my pitiable state is a book by Craig Blomberg that Markos is reviewing for the journal (why he put my name in the title rather than the name of the author of the book is somewhat beyond me).   In this review he points out that, unlike me in my fundamentalist days, Blomberg has the right understanding of the Bible as having no contradictions or mistakes of any kind.   This is what Markos says:

Blomberg offers as his definition of inerrancy one penned by Paul Feinberg: “Inerrancy means that when all facts are known, the Scriptures in their original autographs and properly interpreted will be shown to be wholly true in everything that they affirm, whether that has to do with doctrine or morality or with the social, physical, or life sciences.”

I have to say that I wonder if Markos really intends us to take him seriously.   On the one hand he wants to argue that we are not to evaluate the Bible on post-Enlightenment terms, and yet he also wants to argue that the Bible contains no contradictions with science.   Uh, how is that to work exactly?   Does he mean that the Bible does not contradict the scientific views of, say, 1000 BCE?  I suppose that’s true enough.  But technically speaking there were no “social, physical, or life sciences” then.  So he must be talking about modern science.  Does he really want to say that the Bible is not at odds with modern science??

It’s true that he presents a couple of caveats to protect himself.   (a) The books of the Bible is inerrant “only in their original autographs.”  That means that if you find a flat out contradiction, it is a contradiction only because scribes changed the original text to create a problem.  And how do we know that?  Well, truth be told, we don’t.  The opposite is actually the case.  Textual scholars have known for 300 years that scribes altered their text to get *rid* of contradictions, not to create them.   But there is also this:  (b) The books of the bible are inerrant only when they are “properly interpreted.”  So if you can’t resort to scribal mistake to account for contradictions, then you can simply always say that crazy agnostics find problems with the Bible simply because they don’t know what the text really means.  If they *did* know the real meaning of the text, they would see that there are no contradictions, no discrepancies, no conflicts with any of the modern sciences.

So, to reiterate my first point, I don’t see how Markos imagines a pre-Enlightenment understanding of the Bible is going to help us to see that the Bible does not contradict what the sciences tell us.   Doesn’t his definition of inerrancy presuppose a post-Enlightenment agenda and criterion of evaluation?

But the bigger problem is that I’m afraid what he says is simply not true.   It is oh so easy to show that the Bible contains discrepancies with science (in “what it affirms”) and flat-out contradictions.  This is shooting fish in a barrel.   Let’s just stick with the Hebrew Bible for a minute.  (If I feel inspired, I may continue this into the NT in a later post).   Here are a couple of “for instances” that any sophomore religious studies major could point out (and that major scholars who have devoted their lives to the task of interpreting the Bible have elaborated for many years):

A couple of scientific queries.   Let’s stick with Genesis 1-2.

  1. Have you ever noticed that God creates “light” on earth before there was sun, moon, and stars in Genesis 1? (The reason it is taking place on earth is because that first day – it’s a real day, btw, not a geological age — consists of an “evening and a morning”).   That there was, in fact, water on earth before sun, moon, and stars?   That there was vegetation on earth before sun, moon, and stars?   This is not a far-out liberal reading of the text.  It’s what the text says.
  1. Is it possible to interpret Genesis 2 in any way other than to say that it’s author believed that Adam and Eve were the first two humans who were created directly by God – Adam from the earth and Eve from his side – and not as descended from earlier forms of primate? (This does not contradict the “physical…sciences”??)
  1. Is it not the case the Genesis 2:5-7 really does say that Adam (the first man) was created “when no plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up” – that is, before there was any vegetation on earth, let alone other animals (which are all created after Adam in order to see what he would name them).

Are we really to believe that when “correctly interpreted” in pre-Enlightenment ways, these .  problems are going to disappear?   Or consider discrepancies.  I’m about out of space, so here I’ll just mention two.  Let’s be generous and leave the creation stories behind, and move on to the book of Exodus.

  1. Can Exodus 6:3 be right when it says, quite explicitly, that Yahweh was not known by his name Yahweh to the Patriarchs starting with Abraham in the book of Genesis, when Gen. 4;26 indicates that people were calling upon the “name of Yahweh” long before the Patriarchs, and Gen. 15:6- explicitly  says that Abraham believed Yahweh, and that Yahweh says to him “I am Yahweh” and Abraham then addresses him as “Yahweh”?
  2. Or (one of my favorites) in the account of the ten plagues that Moses performed against the Egyptians to convince the Pharaoh to “let my people go,” if Exod. 9:6 is right that during the fifth plague “all of the livestock” of the Egyptians were killed, then how can 9:19-20, 25 also be right that shortly afterward, during the seventh plague, the hailstorm killed all of the “livestock” of the Egyptians in the fields? What livestock?

OK, I obviously could go on like this for days, weeks, and months.   These are issues well known to everyone who studies the Bible closely.   I do not think it is pitiable to think that the Bible has errors.   I should point out that, for what it’s worth, the definition of inerrancy that Markos sets forth, quoting Blomberg quoting Feinberg, is very, very close to the definition I myself would have given in the days of my fundamentalism.  It is not an improvement on what I thought.  It is what I thought.  I don’t think so any more.  At the end of the day, it’s for one simple reason: it ain’t true.   Maybe *that’s* the pity….


Defending Myself
Why I’m To Be Pitied for Having Been the Wrong Kind of Fundamentalist



  1. Avatar
    fishician  November 10, 2014

    I just had a discussion today with a self-styled apologist (who claims to have had phone conversations with you but you refuse to attend his church and debate his views about the Greek texts!) and talking about contradictions in the Bible was absolutely frustrating. I pointed out several but of course in those instances you have to re-interpret the language to mean something other than it really says, or create a scenario that isn’t actually in the Bible, or speculate about some other circumstance that we just don’t know about – or the texts we’re using are flawed, unlike the “originals.” So, for a fundamentalist believer there is no way for them to see contradictions. The Bible is right, therefore our reading of it must be wrong. Of course, I point out that Muslims and Mormons have the same beliefs about their “inerrant” texts but that doesn’t seem to even register with them. Frustrating.

    • Avatar
      Xmen  November 16, 2014

      The Muslims believe that their text(oral form during this time in Arabia) was preserved entirely in just 20 years after the passing of Muhammad.
      Therefore they believe the room for error in preservation is minimal at best.

      Did they get all of what was revealed to Muhammad?

      Ask the fundamentalist Muslim scholar and he will of course say “Yes”

      Ask a minority of Muslim Scholars and they will at least admit the possibility that some of what came to Muhammad did not make it into the Quran either by choice or it was lost.

  2. gmatthews
    gmatthews  November 10, 2014

    “Textual scholars have known for 300 years that scribes altered their text to get *rid* of contradictions, not to create them.”

    Whoa! whoa! whoa! Is that some of that fancy post-Enlightenment thinking?

  3. Avatar
    Rosekeister  November 10, 2014

    You realize of course that for the life of this blog you could be raising further money by selling T-shirts and coffee mugs emblazoned with “The Wrong Kind of Fundamentalist.” You could wear the shirt to your debates with William Lane Craig.

  4. Avatar
    Yes  November 10, 2014

    In your first example of a contradiction from the Hebrew Bible I wonder what Markos et al would consider the original autograph since the “contradiction” was created by editing the E and J sources together. Was the first ever merger the autograph? Or was the first time the E tradition written down the autograph (in which case there would be no internal contradiction within E, at least not at this point). But then you would have a parallel autograph from the J author which would say something different. Even thinking in terms of autographs when it comes to Genesis seems like the wrong terms. It’s more like asking for the original New York City. Which version of New York is the “original”? The question becomes nonsensical. You can only zoom in on a different layer of the history of a text like Genesis, and it as you zoom in and focus on a different layer of the history, but no matter what level you decide to focus on you never end up with anything like an autograph. In the beginning was the supplement.

  5. David
    David  November 10, 2014

    I am reminded once again of my Christian fundamentalist friend, with whom I have been debating these issues for many, many years. I have pointed out to him everything in your post (many times), and much, much more, to no avail. He either ignores the issue, changes the subject, goes into ad hominem attack mode, or else comes up with bizarre “explanations” that border on the absurd. But this is the condition of the fundamentalist mindset. They start with a conclusion, and then reinterpret, “spiritualize” and/or rearrange the facts in whatever way necessary to resolve the conflict, no matter how unlikely that arrangement.. For the fundamentalist, the alternative (that there may in fact be errors, contradictions and scientific and historical fallacies in the Bible) is simply not an option.

  6. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  November 10, 2014

    I still think you should put it altogether In one book entitled “is the Bible Really Inerrant?” discussing differing texts, contradictions, the making of the canon, the authorship of Bible books, the divine killing of humans and the divine ordering of the killing of humans, the Biblical approval of slavery, whether or not the Gospels were really written by eyewitnesses, etc., etc., etc. The doctrine of Biblical inerrancy is such a big problem influencing gay marriage, medically indicated abortions for problems like ectopic pregnancies, the subordination of women, and, in the past, slavery. The subject really needs a book. Moreover, the doctrine of inerrancy turns so many of us so off that we can’t take seriously anything else people have to say about Christianity. Hence, that doctrine needs to be changed for the good of Christianity.

    • Avatar
      Steefen  November 12, 2014

      Bart: OK, I obviously could go on like this for days, weeks, and months.

      RonaldTaska: I still think you should put it altogether In one book entitled “is the Bible Really Inerrant?”

      Steefen: This. I’m ready to buy this bestseller, now!

    • Avatar
      simonelli  November 12, 2014

      Yes Ronald, If only the preachers and clergy could use a little of their intelligence, and realise that 2Timothy 3:16, was meant to read. “All scripture inspired by God IS profitable for teaching, for reproof; for correction, for training in righteousness.”

  7. Avatar
    simonelli  November 10, 2014

    Jesus spoke in parable, in other words He told a story to convey a moral point or highlight a life situation: “The prodigal son,” “The good Samaritan,” Just to mention a couple. The parable is an effective way to burn the moral point in people hearts. Therefore if the story in the parables doesn’t teach you anything; you must be spiritually dead. You must realise then that the fault lays with you and not with the story. for example the Jews believe that God gave them a piece of real estate, they could not be more wrong about the matter. Because all true Holy Spirit filled people have been made aware in the spirit that the real “Promised Land” is located in the heart of each individual and has to be conquered by our personal spiritual battles of repentance. Not making war with other people, like they are doing. Jewish people need to consider that more than four thousand years have passed since the promise was made. In view of that length of time, they should wisely come to one of these three simple conclusions: first, that God never made such a promise; second, that God is so weak that he cannot keep His promise: third, that God never meant the promise to be a piece of real estate. In the following lines there are some compelling reasons to convince those who are spiritually wise to consider that the third option is the correct one.
    Firstly, because if God so wished, He could have given that land to the Jews by simply prospering His people on that land, without resorting to a conquering armed campaign of death and destruction. Secondly, God-fearing people know that death and destruction are the Devil’s tools of trade. Therefore it is obvious that God never meant the “Promised Land” to be a piece of real estate which generations of Jews and non-Jews are still fighting over. Yes, it is true that the spiritual conquest of our hearts should reflect the brutality of the flesh, for our spiritual struggle of repentance requires that no quarter be given, for all evil occupying the believer’s heart has to die. For it is written in 1Peter 1:16: “you shall be Holy, for I am Holy.”
    Another clear illustration of God’s spiritual meaning of the “Promised Land” is found in God’s dealing with Israel, for we know from the Old Testament that every time Israel sinned God caused them to be removed from the Promised Land, and when they repented God brought them back into the Promised Land. So we need to understand from these two clearly illustrated consequences, deriving from their good and bad behaviour, what God is telling us. That is, that sin causes us to move out from the grace of God, and repentance brings us back into the grace of God. In other words we can sincerely and confidently say: remain in the grace of God and we are dwelling in the “Promised Land.” Yes… even if we live on the inhabitable Continent of Antarctica.

  8. talitakum
    talitakum  November 10, 2014

    For some inexplicable reasons, words of ancient wisdom just crossed my mind:

    “Never wrestle with a pig, you’ll both get dirty and the pig will enjoy it”

    So said, I heartily wish that your next post will be “A Better Kind of Topic” to discuss 🙂

  9. Avatar
    cjcruz  November 10, 2014

    One small thing: big bang theory actually does put light before the stars and celestial bodies. That and the fact that there “was a beginning” seem to be the only two things Genesis gets right. Though one thing isn’t clear to me which I’d love your opinion on: do you think Genesis speaks of a material beginning, i.e. “something from *nothing*”?

    • Avatar
      Wilusa  November 12, 2014

      As I understand it, the universe born of “our” Big Bang (there may have been others) *was* initially dark. Light did *not* exist before there were stars to produce it. I’m remembering the explanation in the TV series “How the Universe Works,” which I recently rewatched on DVDs. The very first episode of Season 1 deals with the Big Bang.

      I am confused on some points. Scientists say our universe emerged from “nothing.” But then, some of the same scientists speculate that the Big Bang was actually the *eruption* of a supermassive black hole in an older universe. If that was the case, it would seem to have come, not from “nothing,” but from a transformation of everything that had been swallowed up by that black hole. (And yes, I want to believe this is the way new universes are born,)

    • Avatar
      Lee Palo  December 24, 2014

      One of the problems I see is that the Genesis creation texts are constantly held up against science. This just doesn’t make sense to me. Until the Cokesbury Christian Bookstores were closed in 2013, I was the manager of the Seattle store, and every now and then someone would engage me in a discussion of some religious topic. One day there was a fundamentalist who came in to the store and talked with me, insisting that Genesis 1 must be seen as scientifically true. Now being a bookstore manager means it is not my place to engage in debate with customers. In this case I drew a quick diagram on a piece of scratch paper. The first column had days 1, 2, and 3. the second column had days 4, 5, and 6. I drew arrows going from the first three days to the second three days. I mentioned to the customer that the spaces created in the first three days are filled in the second three days. Day 1 is light/dark and day/night, while Day 4 is the sun, moon, and stars to fill the day/night. Day 2 has the sea and sky, while Day 5 has fish and birds to fill the sea and sky. …and the same is true for day 3’s relationship to day 6. I didn’t say anything else, but the customer asked if he could keep the diagram (which I let him do). What I wanted to ask him was, “how does that pattern look anything like a scientific account?” Does it not look much more like poetry, albeit one with theological content?

      So my method is to reveal the literary conventions of the text, and in so doing, undermine fundamentalist interpretation. Fundamentalists expect you to use science against them (see Ken Ham). Rather, use the literary quality of the text itself against them!

  10. Avatar
    Matilda  November 10, 2014

    Here are a few possibilities: 1. These people (literalists) are charlatans and con men.
    2. They are somehow mentally unstable. 3. People are afraid and want easy answers. 4. Many smart people suffer from concrete thinking. 5. Many have been brainwashed and can not escape from it.
    Psychologists could probably tell you more.
    I just don’t understand it. I could at least allow for a metaphorical understanding of the Bible, but literal- seriously???
    Bart, when you were a fundamentalist how did you make yourself believe? How did you stop your mind from reason and science? Was it like being in a happy, loving, secure Jesus club?

  11. Avatar
    Wilusa  November 10, 2014

    Of course I agree with you. But I will point out that Feinberg tried to cover himself by saying “when all facts are known.” In other words…much of what scientists are telling us today is wrong, because they still don’t have all the “facts.” Hey, a thousand years from now, they’ll triumphantly prove water *did* exist on Earth before there was a Sun!

  12. Avatar
    silvertime  November 10, 2014

    When discussing these issues with fundamentslists, all of their “proofs “of inerrancy and divine inspiration come from within the bible. That is in their view: the bible proves inself. If you do not accept this analysis, you are told that your faith is weak or that humans are not smart enough to understand the mysteries. It reminds me of an eposide of the Beverly Hillbillies, when two businessmen watching Jethro were impressed that Jethro had invented a new kind of math where 2 and 2 equals 3

  13. Avatar
    Jason  November 11, 2014

    There’s a saying in southern Iowa:”Never ‘rastle (*wrestle) with a pig-you get dirty and the pig likes it.” It sounds like Markos is oinking at you.

  14. Avatar
    Steefen  November 11, 2014

    Louis Markos is Professor in English at Houston Baptist University, where he holds the Robert H. Ray Chair in Humanities.

    Craig L. Blomberg is a New Testament scholar. He is a Distinguished Professor of the New Testament at Denver Seminary in Colorado where he has been since 1986.

    First Things (a journal of religion and public life) published by The Institute of Religion and Public Life, First Things is an educational institute aiming to advance a religiously informed public philosophy.

    • Avatar
      Steefen  November 11, 2014

      First Things has a circulation of approximately 30,000 subscribers. Ross Douthat wrote that, through First Things, Richard John Neuhaus demonstrated “that it was possible to be an intellectually fulfilled Christian.”

  15. Avatar
    BrianUlrich  November 11, 2014

    Might want to start planning your inevitable “Joseph and Asenath” post. =)

  16. Avatar
    gavriel  November 11, 2014

    Do you think that you still carry some grains of your fundamentalist past within you? While in the youth you evangelized with great zeal for a strict and conservative Christian theology, you now do the same thing for the critical-historical approach to Christianity? No offense intended, I would like you to continue that way 🙂

  17. Avatar
    daveagain  November 11, 2014

    I have read or reading many of your books including your scholarly works (e.g. Forgery and Counterforgery etc.) as well as viewed many of your lectures from the Great Courses. I also have your Fifth Edition The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings. Kruger has written a book attempting to undermine the Bauer-Ehrman ideas that you have presented regarding early Christianity. Also, there is the Ehrman Project which is primarily videos by Kruger. I looked at a couple of them and I find them wanting. His portrayal of what you present is simply not true. Also, he mentions a scholar Richard Bauckham who wrote a book regarding Jesus and the Eye Witnesses. Bauckham uses Papias as a reliable source. I can’t find Papias mentioned in any of your books but I am sure you are familiar with him. 2 questions: 1. Have you responded to anything Kruger has stated and is it on the blog? and 2: What about the reliability of Papias?

  18. Avatar
    Kevin Nelson  November 12, 2014

    It is most definitely possible to interpret Genesis 1–2 as a highly metaphorical account of God’s creative power. That is how the Catholic Church interprets it. E.g., we might say that God only directly created the souls of Adam and Eve, while indirectly creating their bodies through some unspecified process, with the raw material coming ultimately from the earth. Maybe you disagree with that interpretation, but I don’t think you can deny a lot of passages in the Hebrew Scriptures are intended metaphorically.

    It sounds to me like Markos is arguing some fundamentalists interpret the Bible TOO literally. That is, his own position is relatively liberal. If the intent of the Bible was always to convey moral and spiritual truths, then it doesn’t make scientific claims at all, and hence cannot be in conflict with modern science.

    We can ask two different questions: 1) How should the Bible be interpreted? 2) After having interpreted it, how can we assess the accuracy of its assertions? I think it is important to distinguish those questions.

    • Bart
      Bart  November 12, 2014

      Yes, if everything is a metaphor then there are fewer problems. But if narratives are said to be metaphorical, why not say the narrative of Jesus’ passion is metaphorical?

      • Avatar
        FrankJay71  November 13, 2014

        Prof. Ehrman, do you think the writers or the compilers of Genesis intended it to be taken as literal history? I’ve been of the opinion that they probably didn’t because many of the contradictions and other problems would have been to glaring. Even if someone were just “making it up” , they must have anticipated questions like, “who was Mrs. Cain?” Or, “who was Cain concerned would kill him, if God had not put a mark on him?” Or, “why was there light before there was a sun or moon?” Also the contradictions in order of the two creation accounts should have been apparent. It’s difficult to believe that the writers meant it to be taken as serious chronological history.

        • Bart
          Bart  November 14, 2014

          I’m not sure these authors would know what a term like “literal history” would mean. But did they think that what they described is what happened? Yes, I think they did.

  19. Avatar
    JEffler  November 14, 2014

    Hi Dr. Ehrman,

    Have you heard of Dr. Michael Kruger? If so, what are your thoughts on him? I know he has responded to you in several areas.

    • Bart
      Bart  November 14, 2014

      Yes, he does not seem to like my historical-critical views. But at least it’s mutual! 🙂 (Though I’ve never felt the need to write against him, the way he seems to feel the need to write against me….)

      • Avatar
        daveagain  November 14, 2014

        Dr. Ehrman
        Correction about my previous post—You do have Papias listed in a couple of your books. Sorry about that.

        The question I have is about Kruger. It’s not that he doesn’t like your historical-critical views (of course he doesn’t he represents a conservative view and he wrote a book against the Bauer-Ehrman theory) it is that he states that you mislead and intimidate people by stating that all the scholars agree with you on the issues you raise among other things. Of course, having watched enough youtube vides of you debating conservatives I know he is completely wrong. You always make sure people understand that “aside from the most conservative fundamentalist scholars” scholars agree with you. In any case, do you see the possibility of responding to some of his errors on this blog (it is not worthy of a book) or debating him sometime since you are a great debater. Thanks.

        • Bart
          Bart  November 15, 2014

          Ha! I’m not sure whom I’ve particularly “intimidated” by indicating what critical scholars tend to believe and think. Of course, since he’s a committed evangelical absolutely committed to the divine inspiration of Scripture, he won’t share the views of more critical scholars. But it doesn’t mean they don’t have them, and readers should be aware that apart from those who have theological reasons for holding views like his, most others (without such a priori’s and assumptions) think this, that, or the other thing.

          • Avatar
            daveagain  November 16, 2014

            Dr. Ehrman
            Thanks for responding. This is the 5 minute video I was referencing (in case you are interested and haven’t heard it) by Michael Kruger, “What advice would you give to students taking Dr. Ehrman’s class?” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A8sxmklrHMY&list=PL56A66CB81EAAB1BC&index=3
            Again, thanks for responding. This is one of the best and most interesting blogs I have encountered.

  20. Avatar
    vinnyrac  December 6, 2014

    daveagain: thank for the video link. Would Kruger be so kind as to prove to the modern reader that any of the miracles did in fact occur? It’s impossible. That the top 10 percent of the accredited seminaries in the U.S. are evangelical doesn’t make what they teach correct, in fact, religious bias probably makes it incorrect. Lastly, I wish that those seminaries, so certain of their textural critical abilities, would be so kind as to explain to the common, earnest believer, why the things that Bart so expertly sets forth in his books (i.e. no autographs, variations in the manuscripts, dating of the manuscripts, contradictions among them, improbable authorship attributions etc. etc. etc.) WERE NOT EVER EXPLAINED TO SAID EARNEST BELIEVER THROUGHOUT THE MODERN CHURCH AGE BY THESE EVANGELICAL EXPERTS! That burns me. That’s manipulation. As they say in the old black and white crime movies: The Jig Is up.

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