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Arguments, Evidence, and Changing Your Mind

In this series of posts on how I got interested in textual criticism, I’ve had a number of people indicate that they don’t see how the problems posed by our manuscripts did not absolutely destroy my evangelical faith.  By implication, I think, they are wondering why evangelicals broadly, to a person, don’t see these problems and realize that they don’t have a leg to stand on when it comes to their belief in the Bible.

The logic these commenters are applying is one that I discuss in my book Misquoting Jesus.  If the evangelical belief is rooted in the sense that the Bible contains the very words that God inspired, and if a study of our manuscripts reveals that there are thousands – hundreds of thousands – of places where these words were changed, so that there are some places where we cannot know what the authors actually wrote, then isn’t that an insurmountable problem?  Why would God inspire the words of Scripture (that would take a mighty miracle!) if he did not make sure these words were never changed (that too would take a mighty miracle!  But this second miracle would be no greater than the miracle of inspiration).  The fact is – as is evident to anyone with any knowledge of the manuscripts at all – the copyists of the Bible changed its words, sometimes a little, sometimes a lot.  And we don’t have the divinely inspired originals themselves.  If God didn’t make sure his people got his words, why should we think he inspired the words in the first place?  Doesn’t textual criticism destroy the foundation of evangelical faith?

That’s the logic, and I understand it full well (since, as I said, I’ve spelled it out for years!).   It is the logic that helped me move away from evangelical faith.  But in itself, with nothing else to back it up, I don’t think it would have had that powerful an effect on me.  For years as an evangelical, I simply didn’t find it an overwhelmingly persuasive argument.

It is funny (as in “strange,” not as in “humorous”) how different people see the force of logical argumentation differently.   But they do.   People simply see things differently.

This semester I am …

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The Rise of the Roman Empire
Bruce Metzger and My Loss of Faith: A Blast from the Past



  1. Avatar
    godspell  September 14, 2016

    A lot of people fail to see the difference between faith and dogma. Dogma is something we have in place of faith, because faith is hard. Dogma is easy. But faith endures. Textual analysis can undermine dogma. It can’t undermine true faith. Because faith isn’t fact-based. And as important as facts are, they are not the same thing as truth. “Love is better than hate.” Not a fact-based statement. It never can be. But it’s the truth. We can’t ever prove it. But all men and women of good will, of all religions and none, believe it to be true. We have faith. When Huckleberry Finn rejects the dogma instilled in him by his elders, because it tells him to betray his friend Jim, says “All right, I’ll go to Hell!”–that’s faith of the highest order.

    Faith is never threatened by an acknowledgement of the facts, because facts and faith are parallel realities. We need both. We need not make them enemies.

    • SBrudney091941
      SBrudney091941  September 24, 2016

      But, if we speak of being dogmatic and how dogmatic a person is, whether he is a person of faith or not, then there is an intimate relationship between faith and degree of dogmatism. It seems naive to think everyone who has faith has the same strength of faith or that everyone sticks to their faith dogmatically. Facts DO change the faith of some but not of others. And I think “love is better than hate” is an empirically demonstrable fact. People get along better, societies work better when the hallmarks of love–patience, generosity, justice, compassion, and forgiveness–are stronger than in other societies. I think that’s why we came to value love: we’ve seen the results.

  2. Avatar
    rburos  September 14, 2016

    I guess it’s always the assumptions that one brings into the debate, which links well to a debate I watched between you and Dr Wallace on whether or not the original NT is lost. I only have YouTube videos to judge from, but I tend to like and respect him. He seems to start with that assumption of “in the beginning, God. . .”, and that definitely affects his outcomes. If I’m unpacking him correctly, he seems to be saying that the vast majority of errors are human made, and God ensured multiple lines of transmission so that smart people like Dr Ehrman and Dr Wallace could discover that original work? Well, maybe Dr Wallace can discover it (lol)?

    I have a priest who is a former Episcopalian who really does believe you are a spawn of Satan. I, however, wish I had some talent that would enable me to be able to repay the service you have done. I’m now reading the gospels and finding parts that I used to think were to be read historically, but now see clearly that they are to be read metaphorically. Is that the first step on the road to agnosticism? Maybe, but it’s getting to be an ever more fascinating trip.

    • Bart
      Bart  September 15, 2016

      Interesting! Most Episcopalians I know are fairly simpatico with my work. Not so much the Free Will Baptists….

    • SBrudney091941
      SBrudney091941  September 24, 2016

      rburos, It’s not necessarily a “first step on the road to agnosticism.” Even if you reject the entire New Testament, it wouldn’t mean you would cease believing in God. You could be a Jew, a Muslim, a Hindu or something else.

  3. Avatar
    smackemyackem  September 14, 2016

    Good article!

  4. Avatar
    Tnewby4444  September 14, 2016

    It’s posts like these that make the cost of the membership worth while.

  5. Avatar
    ddecker54  September 14, 2016

    “Never argue with a fool. Onlookers may not be able to tell the difference” – Mark Twain.
    “All things are possible with God” is another conversation-ender. If you hear that in a discussion, you’d be prudent to smile and walk away.

  6. talmoore
    talmoore  September 14, 2016

    There’s a meme on the Internet where God is talking to Jesus. And God says to Jesus, “Time to reveal our existence to humanity, son. How should we do it?” And Jesus answers, “How about we speak through raving charlatans, who write down our words in soon to be dead languages that require painstaking interpretation and study?” And God says, “How trolly. I love it.”

    That pretty much sums up how I feel about this.

    • Avatar
      webattorney  September 16, 2016

      What is very clear to many Christians is not clear to me at all. I must be a fool to spend time thinking about these matters. I also find myself wondering “If there is Christian or non-Christian God — which I would not be surprised if there was or wasn’t — “Why couldn’t God have done a better job of providing more persuasive evidence?” At this point, I can honestly say to my Maker if I do meet him or her that I truly had an open heart and mind and just couldn’t bring myself to believe in Christianity but tried to be a good human being instead. If I am damned for this, then what he hel* can I do? I don’t even understand what the heck is meant by “In the beginning was the Word”. And I majored in English Literature in college! I mean do I have to learn Greek or Hebrew or another language to understand what the Bible says?

      • Avatar
        webattorney  September 16, 2016

        Also, a minister I knew told me this long time ago. He knew a fellow who was not at all a likable person; in fact, he was an “ass****”. So when a third-party told him that the fellow had become a Christian, he expected the fellow to have changed and was now a likable person. However, when the minister met the fellow again, the minister found out that the fellow was still an “ass****”, and the minister then realized that you can still be a Christian ass****.”

        • talmoore
          talmoore  September 18, 2016

          While atheists make up somewhere between 6 and 20% of the American population (depending on which day you get them on), the self-identified atheist population of American prisons is less than 1%. Go figure that one out.

    • SBrudney091941
      SBrudney091941  September 24, 2016

      Similar to how I put it to my Mormon son-in-law: We can spread the message that God loves humanity and wants humanity to love him and be close to him by choosing a prophet in a time when that would seem really weird to most people to form a religion that, after almost 200 years, will have 15.5 million members and which would send its best teachers out–18-21-year-old whippersnappers out called “elders” (ha ha ha ha)–to persuade the other 7.5 billion people of the truth of the most important news in mankind’s history.

  7. Avatar
    Wilusa  September 14, 2016

    I remember hearing, when I was young, a “theory” about Joseph. I *think* the idea was that he had a half-brother (different fathers) who died, leaving a widow but no children. Joseph was required, by either law or custom, to marry the widow and (assuming he could) father children who would be considered, legally, his half-brother’s. And that could have led to two traditions about Joseph’s paternal ancestry – one of them actually being his half-brother’s ancestry. It was thought that it “didn’t really matter,” since both lines led back to David.

    Of course, I don’t believe any of it! But believers can come up with “explanations” for almost anything.

    • Bart
      Bart  September 15, 2016

      Yes, that is a theory floated around scholarly circles too. It is shown to be completely wrong by Raymond Brown in his book Birth of the Messiah.

  8. Avatar
    judicata  September 14, 2016

    Great post, Bart, and entirely consistent with my experience. I was raised in an evangelical (Southern Baptist) environment and completely committed myself to those beliefs. I was a youth minister in college and grad school and seriously considered seminary. I was also a collegiate debater and took great pride in my ability to study, explain, and debate apologetics. I also simply *knew* the Bible was inerrant and the inspired word of God, and any apparent contradictions must have had reasonable resolutions. Over time, especially after I moved away from home to attend a prestigious law school, issues with the Bible and my faith in general piled up. I fought hard–for *years*–to hold onto my beliefs, but evidence and reason finally won out.

    The experience showed me how deeply and sincerely wrong we can be, even about things that we consider most important to us and about which we are most certain.

    • Avatar
      webattorney  September 16, 2016

      I don’t think any argument can prove or disprove Christianity. You can still HOPE or not hope that a just God exists and we will all be judged ultimately.

      • Avatar
        tcasto  September 19, 2016

        Disproving Christianity by revealing the porous nature of its foundations, is relatively easy. Dispelling faith is another matter. I question religions all the time but I don’t challenge faith, even though I don’t share it. As Robert Langdon put it, “faith is a gift I have yet to receive”.

    • Avatar
      ffg  September 21, 2016

      So true. It takes courage to confront our long and deeply held beliefs.

      • SBrudney091941
        SBrudney091941  September 24, 2016

        I once had a philosophy teacher who said, “Philosophy is the ongoing cross-examination of our most basic presuppositions about who we are.” He said that he and many others consider the death of Socrates to be much more tragic than the death of Jesus.

  9. Avatar
    stokerslodge  September 14, 2016

    Bart, with regard to the different genealogies of Jesus found in Matthew and Luke; what was your own opinion on these differences when you were a Christian? Also, have you any information on what Bruce Metzger’s views were with regard to this matter?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 15, 2016

      I suppose I thought that Luke’s genealogy was of Mary, not Joseph. I’m not sure if that’s what Metzger thought or not. But in any event, all one has to do is actually read Luke and see that it’s not true!

  10. Liam Foley
    Liam Foley  September 14, 2016

    In my line of work, counseling, before my disability, my job was also trying to get people to see things differently. It is difficult to change because our defense mechanisms work so well and once we have a world view we are dedicated towards it and it is easy to rationalize and dismiss those things which do not fit our world view. This is really true for all of us which is why we need to really think critically about what we believe so we don’t become close minded.

    Sorry if this sounded as if I was sermonizing. I have become a theistic agnostic. I have not closed the door to there being more than just this material world and it is possible that some higher intelligence or being exists. I just don’t know and therefore cannot rule it out. But I do not believe this being intervenes much in our affairs so that may make me a deist. I have a sense of spirituality and I am a practicing Buddhist. In my practice of spirituality I put into practice spiritual principles that I find do work in life. I had a minister once tell me I am more concerned with orthopraxy than orthodoxy and that is true! But in most debates I have been in I often side with atheists!

    In my training as a therapist (and in Buddhism) is to become aware that we have biases and opinions that are emotional and not always built on facts, evidence and logic. Great post!!!

    • Avatar
      webattorney  September 16, 2016

      My beliefs are similar to yours but I am not practicing anything. I am waiting for any sincere Christian to profess to me that he or she really doesn’t know if Jesus or God exists but he or she believes in Christianity because it helps him or her deal with life and provide much needed support and guidance. I actually find many parts of the Bible very moving and bring me close to tears. Lol Thanks for your post.

    • SBrudney091941
      SBrudney091941  September 24, 2016

      Strange how you go from “it is possible that some higher intelligence or being exists” to “I do not believe this being intervenes much in our affairs.” Deists aren’t agnostics about the basic belief that a supreme divine being exists. I am the same in that “I have not closed the door to there being more than just this material world.” I think there are more dimensions than we have dreamed of. But, for me, that has never necessitated the existence of a god or gods. There could be a spiritual realm or dimension but no God. I am agnostic about the existence of God too. But, since I am, I do not speculate about whether he/she/it is active or apart from human affairs. BTW, my wife was a psychotherapist (LCSW) for thirty years or so and feels Buddhism, more than any tradition, works best for her and she used many of its teachings (e.g., regarding attachment and ego) in her practice.

  11. Avatar
    mjt  September 14, 2016

    This is so clearly communicated, and it’s the problem I think about almost on a daily basis. Why did I not see all the obvious problems when I had faith? Why don’t people with whom I discuss these obvious issues, see them as problematic. And more importantly, how do I know I’m not doing the same thing now?

    I watched a video by James White, and he made the point that, based on the books that you’ve authored, you are essentially attempting to get people to disbelieve…that was the experience you went through, and it should be everyone’s experience. It’s a really slippery slope…when your perspective on something changes, and you see people believing exactly the way you used to (and you so clearly see why you were mistaken), you want to convince them of what you have been convinced of.

    • Bart
      Bart  September 15, 2016

      Well, I certainly do want to challenge people’s beliefs — especially when these beliefs can be so harmful to others (rabid conservatives like White do not promote views that are socially helpful, in my rather strong opinion)

  12. Avatar
    JamesFouassier  September 14, 2016

    Professor, speaking of the genealogy in Luke, you ask, “So what’s the point of showing a genealogy for Jesus if Jesus is not connected to the genealogy???” The author of Luke got this from somewhere. Is it possible that the genealogy, as it existed in Luke’s day, developed at a time prior to (or perhaps independent of and ignorant of)
    the development of the belief in the Virgin Birth ? Absent the belief in the Virgin Birth – and disregarding the errors – the genealogy then would make sense because Joseph would be Jesus’ father. What I find fascinating in all of this is why such an obvious problem would be retained in the evolution of this Gospel even after the Virgin Birth became generally accepted as a doctrine of faith?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 15, 2016

      Yes, I think that’s entirely possible!

    • Avatar
      Monty  September 15, 2016

      Never thought of this before. Since the virgin birth and the genealogies are only mentioned in Matthew and Luke, it doubly confounds it for me. Seems like the authors of Matthew and Luke would be the least likely to provide a genealogy that went through Joseph, unless they simply thought that Joseph was chosen by God as the “nominal” father of Jesus because of the alleged lineage, and that was deemed enough by the authors of Matthew and Luke to squeeze Joseph into the lineage of David? Neither of them seemed to recognize a conflict between the virgin birth and the genealogies, which is really odd in the case of Luke especially, unless he was unaware of the gospel of Matthew. Why on earth would he write a genealogy that conflicted with one written for a Jewish audience that he knew pre-existed his. It seems that Matthew, being written to a primarily Jewish audience, would be more interested in the genealogy than would Luke, and Luke, written to a Gentile audience, would be inclined toward what I consider a more pagan idea such as a virgin birth. That both of them included these obvious conflicts is baffling, unless of course, neither saw them as a conflict for some reason that is not apparent. I would love to see some scholarly theories about this (in a Trade book of course).

  13. Avatar
    leo.b@cox.net  September 14, 2016

    Outstanding blog post. I believe this is actually the root cause of most conflicts in the world.
    This discussion should be a college course itself: “The Ability to Change our Beliefs.”
    Do they even teach logic in college anymore?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 15, 2016

      Oh yes, logic still gets taught. But it’s obvoiusly not required!

    • Avatar
      tcasto  September 19, 2016

      The parallels between this post and our current presidential race are extensive. Too many on both sides see the competition through a distorted lens. Logic and reason don’t apply. We can only hope that the political conflict doesn’t follow the course of the religious parallels.

    • SBrudney091941
      SBrudney091941  September 24, 2016

      Many schools have changed the course to “Critical Thinking.” Sometimes philosophy students take Logic and other take Critical Thinking. It became mandated years ago in California that teachers in high school (maybe earlier) not have a separate course in critical thinking but incorporate it into their other classes. But, for some teachers, that might be like mandating them to teach the theory of evolution in their science classes.

  14. Avatar
    clipper9422@yahoo.com  September 14, 2016

    My starting point is that beliefs are tools that help us reach our goals. The closer those beliefs approximate objective truth the better we’re able to achieve our goals. Beliefs can help us understand and adapt to the world even if they are flawed. If a flawed belief helps us achieve our goals we should be careful about discarding it until we find a belief that more closely approximates reality. Often we do not so much change our beliefs as we refine them. Of course with religious belief there is a huge temptation to wishful thinking and likely no crucial experimental test of those beliefs until we die. So we need to be extra careful with religious beliefs. Still, because so much is at stake, I think it makes sense to devote a fair amount of effort to the search for religious truth as long as there is more than a negligible chance of, eg, there being a God.

    • Avatar
      webattorney  September 16, 2016

      Very good point. It’s true that as one becomes wiser that things are not as clear as it once seemed. As one human being navigating this uncertain world, I have a great sympathy for anyone doing the same, even those — believers and un-believers included — who seem so certain. Believe me, I have met many Christians who felt pity for me as I walked away thinking “Do they know that I am also feeling pity for them?”

    • SBrudney091941
      SBrudney091941  September 24, 2016

      Well, I would not suggest to a Hitler or a racist or ethnic or nationalistic bigot that they hold on to their beliefs until they find a belief that more approximates reality–especially if they were acting, in their beliefs, against others. This reminds me of a visit by the Maharishi (are you old enough to remember?) to our university and a member of the audience asked him, “Since you teach that meditation can help anyone achieve their goals in life, what would happen [it was the time of the Cold War] if both Nixon and Kosygin began meditating?”

      In my view, since my values and lack of knowledge about a god existing and my doubts about it mean that I do not know that a lot is at stake, I would not “devote a fair amount of effort to the search for religious truth.” I know some people believe a lot is at stake but that is part of their religious belief or truth, not mine. There are so many different versions of alleged religious truth that I am more inclined to believe none of them are right than I am to believe one of them must be right. It is enough to realize there is likely more to this universe than meets the eye and live in its joys and mystery.

  15. Avatar
    dragonfly  September 14, 2016

    Well said!

  16. Avatar
    ceinwyn  September 14, 2016

    Hi Bart,
    About the genealogy of Jesus and whether Jesus is connected to the genealogy of Joseph, is the viewpoint that “Jesus is the adopted son of Joseph, and in those times the adopted son also adopt the genealogy” valid?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 15, 2016

      Yeah, it’s about the only way to make sense of the geneaologies!

  17. Avatar
    Jason  September 14, 2016

    Logic and argumentation are ultimately human inventions, subject to human failings and only as strong as the commonality of the language used to support them. It’s hard to claim absolutism-or even high ground-when we don’t check first principles down to the meaning of the word “is.”

  18. Avatar
    Pattycake1974  September 14, 2016

    I certainly don’t feel superior to anyone about anything! There’s countless people more intelligent than me and able to figure things out that I can’t. However, it’s much easier to be understanding with an 18 yr. old not seeing something about the bible than with an older adult who’s went decade after decade after decade believing the same thing, never changing or growing or questioning anything. They get on in the world being completely clueless and their lives are just dandy. Some days that makes me envious. On other days, I’m just exasperated.

  19. Avatar
    Pattylt  September 14, 2016

    Hello everyone (especially Bart!). My first time posting and I have to comment on this. I, too, struggle trying to understand why some people hold beliefs or political views that are so different from mine (obviously, if they just saw things from another point of view they’d get it?). Ha! These are bright educated people and yet I struggle with trying to grasp their point of view or reasons. I listen to their reasoning and usually just shrug my shoulders and think “their brain must just be wired differently than mine”. Extensive reading and really listening to what they are trying to say can help. Often, what I hear behind the rationalization that they give is an element of fear. It is really hard for some people to think they are wrong. I learned long ago that I am wrong about so many things that I became comfortable in changing my mind. I think it is a skill that one can learn if they are willing but that first encounter with cognitive dissonance is very uncomfortable. Many just lock down their brains and build a wall rather than face it head on. I have found that the more one is faced with opposing opinions the better the chance that a foreign idea might just make sense down the road. It takes time. Love your work, Bart. Keep it up. Patty

  20. tasteslikecorn
    tasteslikecorn  September 14, 2016

    Brilliant post…Twain once said something to the effect of “The ease with which I am able to dismiss another fellow’s faith has caused me to seriously question my own.” I think we could make it even more general and replace “faith” with “perspective” to reflect your general point.

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