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Appreciating the Myths of the Bible

When I came to see that there are mistakes in the Bible, I did not jettison it all as a waste of time.  Not at all.  On the contrary, I continued to value and cherish it, as a book that could reveal truths about God.  Yes it had discrepancies, contradictions, historical errors, glaring scientific mistakes, and so on.  Of course it did.  But that for me was not the ultimate point.  The Bible It was a product of its own time, a very human book.   Even so, it was a book through which God continued to speak.

I came to think that the Bible was more important for the valuable lessons it conveyed than for the factual (or problematic) information it contained.  This view worked on two levels.  For one thing, I came to see it was important to realize that even for ancient readers what mattered about the Bible was not its factual accuracy in its details, but for the ideas that it was trying to present.  And for me personally, it was important to see how the Bible could speak to the issues of my own day, as those ideas could be translated to my own life and time.

To get a sense of how the first point works, I lift here a section from my book The Bible: A Historical and Literary Introduction, where I explain to my readers how the Bible’s opening chapters (Genesis 1-11), called the Primeval History, can be understood not as a lesson in history or science, but as a meaningful set of myths.

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The Primeval History as Myth

From a literary perspective, it should be clear that it is a real challenge to consider the Primeval History either as science or as history, in the normally accepted meanings of the terms.  But that is not to denigrate the narrative.  Not in the least!  These are terrific, moving, and powerful stories.   But they are probably best understood to be stories, not scientific explanations or historical accounts.   More specifically, these stories can be best appreciated when they are recognized as “myths.”

The term myth should not be taken in a negative sense.  It can be used in a very positive sense.  A brief working definition of myth would be…

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Can Myths Be True and Meaningful?
Becoming a Non-Fundamentalist Christian

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Comments

  1. mwbaugh  May 17, 2017

    This is very much my understanding too. Myth and science both seek truth but myth tends to understand truth as meaning while science tends to see it as factuality. But there’s no reason we have to abandon one for the sake of the other. It makes more sense to strive both for meaning and factuality, but to understand you aren’t necessarily going to find both in the same place.




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  2. The Agnostic Christian
    The Agnostic Christian  May 17, 2017

    If it wasn’t for actual religious belief and faith I might actually be able to find the good in the Bible. As it stands I just see a collection of ancient stories and Iron Age morality that now hold the world back from the progress we so sorely need.

    Screw Liberal Christianity too. Seems to me Liberals simply want to have their cake and eat it too. They like the warm fuzzies of their fideistic approach to Christianity, but they also like real science and real progress. So their faith gets pushed back further and further into recesses of what is unknown or cannot be questioned by the scientific process. In my mind that’s as bad as believing in fairies and is a faith not worth having. Once I realised that’s what faith actually was I could no longer hold onto it.




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  3. RonaldTaska  May 17, 2017

    As always, I see your point this time about myths and, as usual, you support your point quite well. I tried this approach to the Bible for many years, but, eventually, all the divine killing, the unclear writing, the unclear prophecies about the Messiah, the contradictions, the legendary material, the historical discrepancies, the illogical stuff, and on and on just became too much for me to see the Bible as anything other than an attempt by people long ago to understand stuff. Surely, God would have inspired and, even edited, better stuff. I do understand that there is some really good writing in the Bible, but the problems in it, for me, just became overwhelming and no one in my world seemed interested or capable of really dealing with those problems in a reasonable way other than quoting scriptures at me and praying for me.




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  4. The Agnostic Christian
    The Agnostic Christian  May 17, 2017

    Once I saw the Bible for what it is: “A very human book” full of “discrepancies, contradictions, historical errors, glaring scientific mistakes, and so on” then it lost all power over me. Who decides which parts are inspired and which are not? Is it only the parts we like? Maybe the Quran is inspired then? Or Shakespeare? Or the Sunday Newspaper? Or Playboy? Many will scoff at that last statement. “Of course Playboy is not inspired! God would never do that!” Oh really? And on what basis do you make that statement? On what authority?

    Seems some Liberals want to have it both ways. They like to make fun of Fundamentalists who think they have a special line to God, but dig a little deeper and they’re not much different. Fideism is at the root of it all. Dress it in modern langauge and set it amongst the ornaments of modern science, but at the end of the day it is still the same pre-scientific dogmatic kind of faith it always was. Dig just a little and you will see there is still a dogma or two that the modern liberal believer is simply unwilling to question or doubt.

    You say “(Genesis 1-11), called the Primeval History, can be understood not as a lesson in history or science, but as a meaningful set of myths.” And that is he modern approach. But is it the ancient approach? Finkelstein would not think so. He believes the stories are fictionswith, perhaps based on a kernel of ancient history, but written mostly for political reasons. It’s quite a reasonable scenario and fits the data very well. The other is a modern re-interpreted that says more about us than it does about a supposed god.




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    • godspell  May 20, 2017

      There’s more than one kind of inspiration, you know. Anything that captures the imagination of people across many generations could be said to be inspired, religious or not. Poets and artists talk about ‘The Muse’–you know where that word comes from, right?

      Interesting how you hate liberals as much as fundamentalist Christians do.

      Because you’re just the other side of the same coin. “Only I have the truth, and everyone else is wrong.”




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  5. talmoore
    talmoore  May 17, 2017

    Dr. Ehrman, I’m sure that when you were a hardcore evangelical the idea that the Bible could be relegated to “myths” was unthinkable. I’m curious, at what point did it become thinkable for you?




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    • Bart
      Bart  May 19, 2017

      Once I say that the literal meanings simply could not be true in places.




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  6. nbraith1975  May 17, 2017

    Bart – Am I correct in understanding that you “believe” there is not a creator of all things – matter, life, etc? That there is a “scientific” explanation for the existence of matter and life? That the complexity of life is a matter of spontaneous generation and not designed by a creator?

    I ask these questions because if matter and life is not a result of a creator and there is nothing beyond this life than death and non-existence, then what’s the purpose of spending a lifetime of study on a book written a couple thousand years ago.




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    • Bart
      Bart  May 19, 2017

      Yes, that’s what I believe. University professors study thousands of things that they don’t “believe” in — from Chaucer to the Third Reich to Marxism to crime to Nietzsche to … you name it. We study things that are historically and culturally important.




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      • nbraith1975  May 19, 2017

        Bart – I truly appreciate your responding to the many comments/questions of your blog readers and also your openness to communicate your personal beliefs.

        I embedded a link to a study in a previous comment and was wondering if you actually read the study – and what your thoughts were about it?

        “Why Abiogenesis is Impossible”
        https://www.trueorigin.org/abio.php

        I’m reluctant to embed links in comment sections for fear of being seen as a spammer or troll. I only add this link because of its relevance to my question and your response.

        Thank You




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        • Bart
          Bart  May 21, 2017

          Sorry, I haven’t been able to read it. Not enough minutes in the hours, hours in the day, or days in the week! But thanks for passing it along.




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          • Jim Cherry  May 21, 2017

            Hi Bart,
            “Why Abiogenesis is Impossible” sounds very dogmatic, I will guess this is a young-earth creationist link.

            Regardless, there is a great 10 minute clip on You Tube explaining abiogensis research!
            Just search for “the origin of life – abiogensis – dr. Jack szostak”
            Jack is one of the leading researchers in origin of life, the slides are played to
            Beethoven’s 9th – a very enjoyable 10 minutes.




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        • pmwslc  May 21, 2017

          See Jerry Bergman’s qualifications on rationalwiki.




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  7. Michael Toon  May 17, 2017

    For Abrahamic fundamentalists, many of them believe that Adam and Eve, and inhabitants in the animal and aquatic kingdoms, were designed to live forever, physically; there was no such thing as dualism; pain and suffering was not present in the garden of Eden before the fall of grace.

    But…

    When God tells humans that they have “dominion” over the creatures of the earth, does this not show that dualism was already present in the world before the fall?

    And when God tells Eve that is going to “multiply” her birth pains because she disobedient, does this not show that pain and suffering was already present in the world before the fall? For example, God doesn’t say: “Because you disobeyed me I’m now going to make you have pains of birth.” No. He says I’m going to multiply or increase the pain of birth.

    This particular point of pain and suffering raises theological questions about all sorts of things that are connected to the literalistic tradition that says the human family wasn’t separated from God before the fall. Pain and suffering challenges most people to experience inner conflict and almost always leads to deep reflections of the presence and power of God in a world where he took an active, personal interest in it. And for many people, including myself, that inner tension can not be resolved by the claim that God is truly present and engaged in the stressful mess of tragedy.

    Adams and Eve, and conceivably their offspring, wouldn’t have to had to disobey God in the garden to experience sorrow and struggle and death and separation from God. It was already designed in the system of creation.

    Your thoughts, Dr. Ehrman?




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    • Bart
      Bart  May 19, 2017

      Yes, I think that’s one way to read the story. But I think the story was traditionally read to indicate that the “sin” created a new situation that differed radically from the utopian life prior.




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  8. jhague  May 17, 2017

    Since these were oral stories before they were written, would the writers of the Primeval history know that it was myth?
    It seems from the Bible that everyone thought of the people and events written in the Hebrew scriptures as actual real events. And that belief and thinking made it all the way to the Christian churches in the 21 century!




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    • Bart
      Bart  May 19, 2017

      I doubt they had categories such as “myth” “legend” “history” “biography” and so on….




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      • jhague  May 19, 2017

        What I meant was that someone at some point knew that they were adding to and changing the stories. Then the story was written and at some point became “scripture.” The story tellers would know that they are making changes while the story was oral. But the person writing the story for the first time might have thought he had an historical story. It certainly seems that everyone in the Bible thought that the written stories were historical. And most Christians ever since!




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        • EarlyFathers  June 1, 2017

          As Ehrman has suggested it is hard to know just how the people of ancient civilizations understood their own origin myths. I think the prototype would be the Akkadian creation myth “Enumah Elish” and its previous Sumerian iterations. How did the Akkadians and Sumerians understand these stories? What were they used for and how were they used?
          It might help to go back to the Greeks to understand how they developed the concepts of ‘myth’ and ‘history’. The first time that we see the use of the word ‘myth’ is in Homer’s Iliad. The scene is at the beginning of the poem during a council meeting of the Greek commanders. The scepter is passed to Achilles and he has the floor. He tries to persuade the Greeks to follow his council and it is here that Homer uses the word ‘myth’, meaning, obstensibly, a powerful speech meant to persuade.
          Of course, over time the Greeks changed the definition of myth with the advent of philosophers and allegorists. However, even then the concept still conveyed the idea of a story meant to persuade others about certain truth claims, regardless of its status of dubious factuality. This plays well to Ehrman’s own analysis of the intentions of the creation stories (if you agree that there is more than one creation story in the beginning of Genesis). Why did the author(s) write these ‘myths’ the way that they did and what purpose did these stories serve? I think Ehrman gets it right.
          Next, given the extensive time period that the words ‘ancient’ and ‘antiquity’ cover the concept of history is fairly new. It famously starts with Herodotus and his “Histories”. For the first time the concept of history is defined with criteria (given by Herodotus). He will only include a story in his Histories if it meets the criteria he sets. Of course for Thucydides Herodotus’ criteria on what stories can be counted as historical was way too liberal and loose. Regardless, we could rightly say that biblical stories, even the Gospels, were “historical” even if their factuality is questionable according to our current standards of what is or is not historical.
          What has to be kept in mind is that we cannot retroactively impose our modern concepts on that of the ancient world. It is then that we get ourselves into trouble. Instead, as Ehrman explains, we must first understand how the ancient world saw these origin myths and how they used them, given that from the time of their conception to their written forms the ideas of ‘myth’, ‘legend, ‘history’ and the like did not exist (at least not the way we currently understand them to be).
          I hope I got your analysis correct, Bart.




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      • EarlyFathers  June 7, 2017

        As Ehrman has suggested it is hard to know just how the people of ancient civilizations understood their own origin myths. I think the prototype would be the Akkadian creation myth “Enumah Elish” and its previous Sumerian iterations. How did the Akkadians and Sumerians understand these stories? What were they used for and how were they used?
        It might help to go back to the Greeks to understand how they developed the concepts of ‘myth’ and ‘history’. The first time that we see the use of the word ‘myth’ is in Homer’s Iliad. The scene is at the beginning of the poem during a council meeting of the Greek commanders. The scepter is passed to Achilles and he has the floor. He tries to persuade the Greeks to follow his council and it is here that Homer uses the word ‘myth’, meaning, obstensibly, a powerful speech meant to persuade.
        Of course, over time the Greeks changed the definition of myth with the advent of philosophers and allegorists. However, even then the concept still conveyed the idea of a story meant to persuade others about certain truth claims, regardless of its status of dubious factuality. This plays well to Ehrman’s own analysis of the intentions of the creation stories (if you agree that there is more than one creation story in the beginning of Genesis). Why did the author(s) write these ‘myths’ the way that they did and what purpose did these stories serve? I think Ehrman gets it right.
        Next, given the extensive time period that the words ‘ancient’ and ‘antiquity’ cover the concept of history is fairly new. It famously starts with Herodotus and his “Histories”. For the first time the concept of history is defined with criteria (given by Herodotus). He will only include a story in his Histories if it meets the criteria he sets. Of course for Thucydides Herodotus’ criteria on what stories can be counted as historical was way too liberal and loose. Regardless, we could rightly say that biblical stories, even the Gospels, were “historical” even if their factuality is questionable according to our current standards of what is or is not historical.
        What has to be kept in mind is that we cannot retroactively impose our modern concepts on that of the ancient world. It is then that we get ourselves into trouble. Instead, as Ehrman explains, we must first understand how the ancient world saw these origin myths and how they used them, given that from the time of their conception to their written forms the ideas of ‘myth’, ‘legend, ‘history’ and the like did not exist (at least not the way we currently understand them to be).
        I hope I got your analysis correct, Bart.




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  9. Eskil  May 17, 2017

    Doesn’t the myth also teach that God lies and the serpent speaks the truth?
    God: “when you eat from it you will certainly die.” (Gen 2:17)
    Serpent: “You will not certainly die” (Gen 3:4)
    And instead of dying “Adam made love to his wife Eve” (Gen 4:1)
    and they lived happily ever after.




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  10. Gary  May 17, 2017

    Off topic question: Dr. Ehrman, have you addressed this issue in one of your posts (not in a book) that you can refer me to?

    Many moderate Christian apologists have asked me this question: If we accept the skeptic assertion that the disciples had hallucinations (or vivid dreams, visions, or simply illusions) of a resurrected Jesus, where did they get this concept? Medical experts tell us that hallucinations contain content that already exists in the brain. For instance, a man living in fourteenth century England is not going to hallucinate driving a ’67 Buick. Such an hallucination would be impossible as the concept of automobiles would not have existed in the brain of a fourteenth century man.

    If scholars are correct that Jesus did NOT predict his death and resurrection to his disciples; that these statements in the Gospels were later interpolations, where did the disciples get the concept of one single person being resurrected as this concept did not exist in first century Judaism or paganism? Thanks.




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    • Bart
      Bart  May 19, 2017

      People have always had visions of deceased loved ones, so far as we can tell. So I don’t think they would have had to have had some kind of previous concept of the phenomenon before experiencing it. What matters for the origins of Christianity is that they interpreted the visions as indicative of “resurrection.” And *that* was an idea they brought to the experience, not one they learned at the experience.




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  11. doug  May 17, 2017

    Ancient writings, like the Bible, can show how people felt about things, had values, and sought meaning in life. From that, I can feel a connection with those humans who lived thousands of years ago. We can’t expect them to have understood modern science. But we can see they shared our human emotions and concerns.




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  12. wrengles  May 17, 2017

    Genesis refers to seven days, but I gather that the seven day week was not invented until around 500 BCE (and was not based on Genesis). I thought J and E were writing in the 800-900 BCE time period, but does this suggest that Genesis was written much later, no earlier than 500 BCE? Or is it coincidental that Genesis uses seven days and we later adopted a seven day week (doesn’t seem likely)?




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    • Bart
      Bart  May 19, 2017

      What makes you think that a seven day week was not invented until 500 BCE?




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      • wrengles  May 19, 2017

        Ah! I Googled it! The first three sources I looked at all said it was the Babylonians around 500 BCE. But now that I look further, I see other sources say it was earlier. As Emily Litella would say: never mind!




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  13. nichael  May 17, 2017

    Wonderful. As always, thank you.

    Another way I’ve heard this phrased is that Myth is a story (told in the form of a historical tale) that a culture tells itself in order to more deeply portray a religious or cultural truth.

    Similarly, in classical mythology, tales like the Iliad and Odyssey could be viewed, at their core, not as “historical documents”, but as stories that encoded and described the nature of how the underlying early Greek culture saw itself, and its rituals and beliefs. (Anyone interested in this view should see the excellent works by Gregory Nagy.)

    Another, more recent example might be the role of the “Western” in viewing American history. While no one would study such movies and novels as sources of historical fact, the tales are still be a valuable source for understanding how Americans thought about themselves, and saw themselves and their role during that period




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  14. nichael  May 17, 2017

    [[P.S. As a brief further aside on this topic:

    One the most interesting 24hr-periods in my life begin with an evening lecture on the nature of Mythology, which made many of these points concerning Myth as a story that attempts to portray a deeper religious or cultural reality.

    The next morning I happened to attend a lecture by the cognitive neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga. Much of his lecture dealt with his metaphor that the conscious mind is primarily a “story” that the brain tells the individual in order to make sense of our physical and sense-interactions with the world.

    I’ve greatly simplified what could easily be multi-hour lecture (I would invite anyone who might be interested in these things to seek out Dr Gazzaniga’s books, all of which I highly recommend).

    But the point here is that I found this parallelism (i.e. “Myth” as a story depicting a culture’s historical/religious experience; and “Mind” as a story portraying an individual’s interactions with the world) to be fascinating.]]




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  15. laura_ek  May 17, 2017

    Hi Bart,

    I’d like to know how why you still believe the Bible is inspired by God? And what does ‘inspired’ truly mean? Does it mean that he moves people to write something which they kind of feel they are being told and to write in in a way which other people will learn something from it? I just find it inconsistent to think that people are moved by a feeling and can end up writing things that so many end up coming to different conclusions about. Surely literature in the senses of ‘myth; can be dangerous if misinterpreted, so why use this medium?

    Thank you Bart!




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    • Bart
      Bart  May 19, 2017

      I *don’t” believe that, in no small part because I’m an atheist!




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  16. cheito
    cheito  May 17, 2017

    DR Ehrman:

    Is the witness of Paul about the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, a myth?

    And is what Paul wrote in Romans 11:25-27 about Israel and the deliverer coming to Jerusalem also a myth? Can a myth be fulfilled in the future. Paul believed that the salvation of the Jews as a nation, and their restoration to the land was still in the future.

    Romans 11:25-27

    25-For I do not want you, brethren, to be uninformed of this mystery—so that you will not be wise in your own estimation—that a partial hardening has happened to Israel until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in;

    26-and so all Israel will be saved; just as it is written,
    “THE DELIVERER WILL COME FROM ZION,
    HE WILL REMOVE UNGODLINESS FROM JACOB.”

    27-“THIS IS MY COVENANT WITH THEM,
    WHEN I TAKE AWAY THEIR SINS.”

    And what about Abraham? Was Abraham also a myth to Paul?

    I agree that the OT books were altered and edited, and additions and subtraction were made according to the biases of the scribes who copied them in each subsequent generation, the result being that IN SOME BOOKS MORE THAT IN OTHERS, we have a corrupted, historically unreliable version of the original narrative. Genesis Chapter 1 and 2 is a good example.

    Jeremiah wrote about this fact in his own generation:

    Jeremiah 8:8 “How can you say, ‘We are wise, And the law of the LORD is with us’? But behold, the lying pen of the scribes Has made it into a lie.

    Jeremiah 23:36“For you will no longer remember the oracle of the LORD, because every man’s own word will become the oracle, and you have perverted the words of the living God, the LORD of hosts, our God.

    So, yes I agree that we don’t have the original writings of Moses, nor do we have any of the original writings of any of the patriarchs of the OT.

    However I do not agree that the accounts are mythological stories.




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    • Bart
      Bart  May 19, 2017

      Paul certainly thought it was a historical reality. I, of course, do not. Some myths are not known to be myths by the person telling them.




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  17. hasankhan  May 17, 2017

    Imaginative stories by definition are false. To say something is myth and by extension imaginative, is asserting that it is false. For us to say something is a myth, we have to be sure that it is entirely false. Or is it not the case?




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    • Bart
      Bart  May 19, 2017

      Thanks! Your comment inspired today’s post!




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    • cheito
      cheito  May 19, 2017

      hasankhan:

      How can one be ENTIRELY SURE that the accounts, wisdom and words Abraham, Issac, Jacob, Moses, Joshua, Samuel, King David, King Solomon, The prophets of Israel, Jesus, Peter, Paul and John which spanned two millennium or so were totally based on myths?




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  18. fishician  May 17, 2017

    The problem I have with appreciating the “myths” of the Bible is that so many of them make God look so bad! Like the flood story you mentioned – God wipes out almost all of humanity only to turn around and recognize it was a mistake because human nature is not going to change (Gen. 8;21). He didn’t know that before wiping out all those people? Or the terrible things God says He will do to His people if they disobey (at least according to His prophets), far worse than I can imagine any father wishing upon his children. I suppose I can learn to cherry-pick the “nice” verses like most people do.




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  19. Jason  May 17, 2017

    If you could “bullet-point” the top 5-10 truths-that-are-not-facts in the Bible that you still find some useful value in, what would that list look like?




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  20. joks  May 17, 2017

    Dr Ehrman,

    I think you recommended a book on the Old Testament in an earlier comment section. Looking back, I have not been able to find the name of that book. Would you post again what books you recommend in getting an overview of the Old Testament.




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    • Bart
      Bart  May 19, 2017

      The two I typically recommend are Richard Friedman, Who Wrote the Bible, and Silberman and Finkelstein, Unearthing the Bible.




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