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Bruce Metzger and My Loss of Faith: A Blast from the Past

    I mentioned my mentor, Bruce Metzger, in a recent post.  In this blast from the past, I reprint a post I did almost exactly four years ago, in response to a question that I was then asked about how Metzger, a devoted Christian and minister of the church, responded to the fact that I (one of his closest students) lost my faith.   The question generated a series of posts on related topics, but here is the one where I actually answer the question:


I have come now, by an unusually circuitous route, to answer the question that got me started in talking about my relationship with Bruce Metzger, my work for the NRSV Bible translation committee, my view of the NRSV as a translation, the textual problems of Luke 22:19-20 and 22:43-44 and, well sundry other things. The reader’s question was how Metzger responded to my loss of faith. When I first got to know him, I was a strong evangelical Christian. In the years before he died, I had become an agnostic. How did he respond to that.

After all that I’ve written in these posts, I’m afraid the direct answer will be a bit of a disappointment.  The answer is: I don’t know.

Metzger and I never talked about either my faith or his.  He was my teacher and I was his student, and we talked almost exclusively about scholarship:  New Testament studies, the history of earliest Christianity, the textual tradition of the New Testament.  We did not have a pastoral relationship but an academic one.   I don’t know if Metzger ever had…

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Bruce Metzger is the author of several books including The Early Versions of the New Testament and The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption, And Restoration.

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  1. Avatar
    Pegill7  September 12, 2016


    As I recall your loss of faith, as explained in God’ Problem, stemmed from your inability to reconcile the horrific amount of evil in the word with the belief in a benevolent God. That is my position as well. I get so sick of hearing that this can easily be explained by “Free Will.”But what does Free Will have to do with the Black Death, Ebola, the Zika virus, etc. So six million Jews have to be killed so Hitler can have Free Will. Twenty million Chinese peasants have to starve to death so that Mao has the Free Will to implement his agricultural “reforms.” Am I missing something?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 14, 2016

      Yes, I think Free Will can go only so far….

    • Avatar
      bobnaumann  September 20, 2016

      Free will only applies to human acts. Hurricanes, tornados, floods, earthquakes, Ebola, Zika virus, cancer, etc. are simply the results of nature acting according to natural laws. To mitigate these natural evils, humans must learn Nature’s laws and how they operate in order to develop strategies for dealing with them.

  2. Avatar
    Jakob Ganschow  September 12, 2016

    I lost my faith as recently as two years ago, having been brought up in the church and being a student at Southern Seminary. Can I ask what was the most difficult part of you losing your faith was? For instance, I’ve struggled tremendously with being ostracized so heavily.

    • Bart
      Bart  September 14, 2016

      It was emotionally hard being cut off from people I loved….

    • Avatar
      twiskus  September 15, 2016

      Jacob, I have lost my former faith within the last year myself (25 years of doubting) and only a few people know thus far. While it is incredibly liberating, it is extremely difficult at the same time. I feel extremely well positioned to defend my beliefs (or unbelief I suppose) compared to 32 years of being a born again, fundamentalist. However, I’m not out to “prove a point”…I just want my closest and most loved family and friends to just stop and *think* as I did just so maybe they can understand and even maybe, just maybe, see my point of view.

  3. Avatar
    bcannon  September 12, 2016

    Good answer. Scholarship was the issue, not personal beliefs. Thanks so much for all the insights you share in your lectures and blog.

  4. AoSS
    AoSS  September 12, 2016

    I have a few questions unrelated to this post.

    What are your thoughts on Undergrad Student Papers in academic student journals?

    I am wondering because there is a topic that I have been researching for a while (as best as I can with my level of education) and am wondering if it is a good idea to try and turn my research into a paper for publishing.

    I also am wondering what resources you recommend for undergrad students to help with researching topics and what advice you have for said students.

    Thank you in advance

    • Bart
      Bart  September 14, 2016

      I think they are fine to do, but they do not give you any “leg up” professionally, when applying, for example, to graduate schools. Your time is spent better studying for the GREs and doing well in your courses!

  5. Avatar
    Michael Fischer  September 12, 2016

    I’ve wondered this many times! I know Metzger was a Presbyterian so I wonder if he held an extreme view on God’s work in salvation, normally attributed to Calvinist, that his effort of proselytizing was unnecessary. I just can’t understand how with a close relationship it would have NEVER came up. I don’t bug my agnostic friends but I know my interest in their personal beliefs has at least shown at one point or another.

  6. Avatar
    VaulDogWarrior  September 12, 2016

    Very different world to most Evangelical churches I spent time in. That’s pretty much all we ever talked about or preached about…

  7. Avatar
    Himb4i  September 12, 2016

    “As with many conservative Christians, he was more invested in his relationship with God than with his doctrines. “. My experiences have shown me otherwise. Conservatives care about doctrine rather then relationship with the Divine.
    Nice article. Thank you for sharing Professor.

  8. Avatar
    Wilusa  September 12, 2016

    About those other colleagues (believing Christians) with whom you’ve never discussed your faith or lack of it: Do you think it likely that they know you’re an agnostic, and they don’t bring up the subject out of respect for you? Respect they might have for *any* agnostic, not necessarily a colleague?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 14, 2016

      My sense is that most of my colleagues are agnostics. But we never talk about it!

  9. Avatar
    Gary  September 12, 2016

    As a former fundamentalist evangelical Christian I can tell you just how mind-boggling this “academic code of conduct” by your former Christian mentor comes across to most Christian fundamentalists. Here is how they think:

    If you knew that your co-worker’s house was going to explode into fireball at twelve midnight tonight and that he and his entire family would be burned alive in the fire, would you simply smile and say “Morning, Bob!” when you see him in the office that morning? Would you refrain from warning him of his impending doom just because it might be perceived as “unprofessional”??

    In the eyes of fundamentalist Christianity your hell-bound, damned-for-eternity, blood will drip off the fingertips of Bruce Metzger’s hands when he stands before the Judgment Seat of Christ. He is morally responsible for not attempting to bring you back into the “fold”.

    (I am now a happy agnostic, btw, and don’t believe any of this nonsense.)


  10. talmoore
    talmoore  September 12, 2016

    Dr. Ehrman, I noticed in your debate with Michael Bird that, while your believing colleagues display a tremendous amount of respect for you as a scholar, they still seem to betray a certain underlying…how shall I say it?…pity? for your loss of faith. That is to say, the inexorable superciliousness that arises from their steadfast conviction seems to make them look down at an apostate such as yourself as if you are an aberration — a cautionary tale, if you will. They may not talk with you about your faith (or lack thereof), but I’ll bet a million dollars they talk about your faith (or lack thereof) with each other the minute you leave the room.

    • Bart
      Bart  September 14, 2016

      Yup, that seems to be a big issue for them — not so much because they pity me as that I’m leading so many people astray!

  11. Avatar
    billw977  September 12, 2016

    I appreciate your brutal honesty. I just finished my 3rd book by you and it has answered many questions I’ve had in the past, but at the same time, opened up a whole new field of questions. The biggest one being where does one go from here? I still believe in a “supreme being”, can’t help but think that all of this amazing “creation” came about by randomness. Or seeing so many people’s lives changed to the better by “coming to the Lord”. I realize that just the act of “coming to the Lord” results in people purposely changing their actions and reactions by taking the higher road. But this doesn’t explain all of the things I’ve seen or heard about. Maybe God is bigger than this little book we call the Bible?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 14, 2016

      Yes, if he exists, he certainly is that!!

    • Avatar
      JakSiemasz  September 15, 2016

      It didn’t come about through randomness…That’s the fallacy…study evolution for the answers.
      Also, just because people “believe” their lives are changed by coming to the lord doesn’t make it true. People fool themselves all the time.

  12. Josephsluna
    Josephsluna  September 13, 2016

    Ezekiel 28:13 …. What is this saying..??

    • Bart
      Bart  September 14, 2016

      Yes, it’s very strange. The king is said to be an embodiment of the original Adam.

      • talmoore
        talmoore  September 14, 2016

        Actually, verse 14 is the really bizarre one, because the author suddenly shifts to the feminine gendered “you”, implying that the king of Tyre is now female. The line literally says: “You(f.) cherub annointed annoints you(f.)”. I’ve noticed that most translations say “meaning of Hebrew uncertain” for this part, and, boy-oh-boy is that ever true! Within the context of the rest of the lamentation I get the sense that the author is saying that the king of Tyre (probably Ethba’al, who was dethroned by the Babylonians around the same time as the Jerusalem nobility were taken into exile) had once had the protection of God, but then God withdrew his protection when the king became more concerned with wealth than religious obligation.

  13. Avatar
    toejam  September 13, 2016

    Two questions that popped into my head this afternoon. Maybe good ones for a future round-up post? (or you could just answer them briefly here…)

    1) What, in your opinion, is the most interesting fresh *new* idea among scholars of Christian-Origins? It doesn’t have to be one that you necessarily subscribe to, but perhaps an idea that is beginning to gain momentum in scholarly circles and/or might shed new light on old ground?

    2) What is a Christian-Origins related mystery that you find yourself divided over – something where you think there are good arguments for and against and you find it difficult to be persuaded one way or the other? (e.g. For me, it would be the question over the extent to which the gospel authors intended their work to be read literally or figuratively – did they want people to actually think Jesus magically multiplied bread, or was this always supposed to be taken metaphorically?)

    • Bart
      Bart  September 14, 2016

      1. Wow. New ideas show up all the time!! Not sure I could pick one! 2. How significantly did Paul change his mind about major theological issues?

  14. Avatar
    Wilusa  September 13, 2016

    OT, but possibly important!

    I just received a new catalog from The Great Courses. Almost threw it out without looking through it – but I did look, and saw there’s a course called “Discover How Christianity Conquered Pagan Europe: The Fall of the Pagans and the Origins of Medieval Christianity,” by Kenneth W. Harl, a Professor of Classical and Byzantine History at Tulane. From the description, it seems to be covering the same topic as your forthcoming book! Except that it extends to the 6th century, with Constantine being converted two-thirds of the way through.

    It’s not a *new* course – I checked with Amazon, and they had used audio versions for sale. At a quick look, I got the impression Harl has written few if any books (certainly not one on this topic), but done lots of Great Courses lectures on various branches of history.

    I’m wondering…if his Great Course lecture series covers the same material as your forthcoming book, are you and he even aware of each other’s work? If so, have you reached conclusions that differ from his?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 14, 2016

      Yes, his course is on the same topic as my book. And it is very, very different. Harl is not an expert on early Christianity, but with a later period. Moreover, he is not a textual expert but is an archaeologist. All of that shows in his course, I think.

  15. Avatar
    Hickman777  September 13, 2016

    Dr. Ehrman,
    You have stated or implied the variety of viewpoints within “Fundamentalism” and “Evangelicalism” while tying both groups to Biblical Inerrancy. After I left Moody in the mid-sixties, it was clear to me that there were serious cracks in their dispensational system. College following Moody took me from Fundamentalism to Evangelicalism with inerrancy shaky but still intact. Then the next four years at Fuller Seminary changed me once again. Only a month into Systematic Theology, Paul Jewett taught in Theology 101 that “inerrancy is an untenable doctrine.” He had a “high” view of Scripture without inerrancy and called himself a “Neo-Evangelical.” Then in Hermeneutics, Dan Fuller kept the word “inerrancy” while redefining it, allowing Scriptural inspiration to be defined by the indicia of Scripture itself. It was “inerrant” only in the sense that the product is what God wants with cultural accommodation, human errors, etc. I then understood why Fuller was being labeled by Fundamentalists as “Liberal” and by the more liberal as “Fundamentalist.” Higher criticism was welcomed; in fact in exegetical papers for George Ladd it was demanded. This branch of Evangelicalism has been detailed by George Marsden, Reforming Fundamentalism: Fuller Seminary and the New Evangelicalism (1987). By compartmentalization I managed to maintain my Neo-Evangelicalism throughout my active ministry. I read a lot of E.P Sanders, Raymond Brown, and J.P. Meier, but it was reading all your books (and Great courses) that brought me to drop the label “Neo-Evangelical.” Now that I am retired I can admit that. But I still think the terms Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism should occasionally be nuanced a little more — I think. But I’m not sure how important it is.
    Thanks for your wisdom.

  16. Avatar
    TomSmith  September 13, 2016

    I’ve long been puzzled by the use of the language of loss as applied to faith–or virginity, for that matter. In every other aspect of life, if one has a new experience or a new insight, we usually frame it in terms of gaining something: experiencing skydiving, traveling to Greece, understanding an economic principle, etc. Interesting that the first sexual experience, or changing one’s view about the existence of God, is framed as a loss of some prior state.

  17. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  September 13, 2016

    Thanks. I remember reading this before and being puzzled by it since it seems, at least to me, more than a little odd that scholars would not talk about where all this scholarship leads with regard to putting it all together into conclusions since this seems to be the ultimate purpose of all the scholarship. I actually discuss such “conclusions” quite a bit with my golf buddies. I still don’t split faith and knowledge into compartments (non-overlapping magisteria) the way that you seem to do. For me, truth is truth. We either have evidence for stuff or we don’t, or the bulk of the evidence, at least, leads us in a certain direction. I don’t tend to say we have evidence for this or that and then we have faith which is separate thing from this evidence.

  18. Avatar
    bbcamerican  September 13, 2016

    A powerful, personal post. Thanks for sharing.

  19. Avatar
    Hume  September 13, 2016

    Hi Bart

    In August you said you’d add this to the reader’s mailbag. I have been really looking forward to your views on this:

    Good post. But how do you feel about dying? Is that not in some part terrifying. And us losing our loved ones forever? How do you get over that?

    Many thanks.

    • Bart
      Bart  September 14, 2016

      My strong sense is that death is the end of our existence — so there’s nothing to be terrified of. I wasn’t horrified before I existed and I won’t be after I exist!

      • Avatar
        billw977  September 14, 2016

        Wow, I find it hard to believe that you really think that! Especially for someone who sponsors charitable organizations, you teach new students honest facts about the Bible, you host an interesting blog and keep it respectable and do many debates. What is the point? Why waist your time? Why not “Eat, drink, and be merry”? if we’re all just going to die and that’s it?

        • Bart
          Bart  September 15, 2016

          Well, I certainly do believe in good food, good wine, and a happy lifestyle! Yes indeed! But I also believe that life cannot be lived to its fullest in isolation. We need friends, family, purpose, and causes. And we need to help others who simply don’t have access to the good things in life. Doing so improves their lives, improves the world, and improves us!!

        • Avatar
          JakSiemasz  September 15, 2016

          Some of us have social consciousness. We don’t have to believe in a sky daddy to do good. So prove dualism!

      • Avatar
        Hume  September 14, 2016

        Non fui, fui, non sum, non curo.

        • Bart
          Bart  September 15, 2016


        • talmoore
          talmoore  September 15, 2016

          I just found out that the Romans got this notion from the Epicureans. Epicurus said something to the effect of if I didn’t exist before I was born, why should I care if I don’t exist after I die?

  20. Avatar
    mweininger  September 15, 2016

    In regards to death, anyone who has been put under general anesthetic which induces a state of complete loss of consciousness knows what death is. Of course when the effects of the chemically induced loss of consciousness wears off we awaken with no memory of the event. in death we never awaken.

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