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Can My Undergraduate Students Continue Believing the Bible is Inerrant?

Since my conference in Chicago last weekend I’ve been thinking a lot about the theologically conservative folk who really believe there can be no mistakes in the Bible.  And just now browsing through some posts five years ago, I see someone raised a very interesting question about it, in relationship to my teaching at UNC.  Here’s the question and my response.  I would still answer the same way today!

 

QUESTION:

Do you ever get a student in your class who doggedly insists upon the inerrancy of the Bible? If so, and if they write their term papers in support of Biblical inerrancy, is it possible for them to get a passing grade in your class?

 

RESPONSE:

HA!  That’s a great question!

So, part of the deal of teaching in the Bible Belt is that lots of my students – most of them? – have very conservative views about the Bible as the Word of God.    A few years ago I used to start my class on the New Testament, with something like 300 students in it, by asking the students a series of questions, just for information.  I would ask:

  • How many of you in here would agree with the proposition that the Bible is the inspired Word of God? (PHOOM!  Almost everyone raises their hands)
  • OK, great: Now, how many of you have read the Harry Potter series? (PHOOM! Again, almost everyone raises their hand).
  • And now, how many of you have read the entire Bible? (This time: scattered hands, here and there, throughout the auditorium)

Then I’d laugh for a minute and say, “OK, so I’m not telling *you* that *I* think the Bible is the inspired Word of God; you’re telling *me* that *you* think it is.   I can see why you might want to read a book by J. K. Rowling.   But if God wrote a book – wouldn’t you want to see what he had to say???”

What I have found over the years, consistently, is that my students have a much higher reverence for the Bible than knowledge about it.   Most of them would say, at the beginning of the course, that there can be no mistakes in the Bible.  But of course they haven’t actually read the Bible in order to *see* if there are any mistakes in it.  They’ve just learned, from childhood, that it’s a perfect, flawless book.

The goal of my class is NOT to …

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What Does the Name Judas “Iscariot” Mean?
Modern Evangelical Christian Apologetics

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    gwayersdds  October 24, 2019

    Oh my goodness Bart!! You actually expect your students to THINK!! How radical an idea. It borders on educational heresy when in today’s education, students are only meant to sit and absorb whatever is thrown at them in order to parrot it back on an exam. What is the world coming to? (said with tongue firmly in cheek).

  2. Avatar
    Stewiegriffin  October 24, 2019

    Do you ever get students who defend mythicism and would they have a chance of getting a passing grade? 😄

  3. Avatar
    dankoh  October 24, 2019

    This is EXACTLY the point of a university education – to get people to think critically, for themselves – though I really think it should start in grade school. And unfortunately, it’s something that’s become far less common since I went to college. I congratulate you for maintaining the tradition of academe and wish you the best of luck in continuing to do so.

  4. Avatar
    RN1946  October 24, 2019

    What a great blog post! “Inspired,” if I may be so bold.

  5. Avatar
    Colin P  October 24, 2019

    Hi Bart. Off subject but I think you said you were going to do your Triumph of Christianity for the Great Courses. I think the GC are great and not just your lectures. When are you going to record your lectures?

  6. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  October 24, 2019

    Great post!

  7. Avatar
    veritas  October 24, 2019

    Bart,your teaching style,I believe is very good.Allowing someone to think serves better than imposing your views on another.The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy,which deals with alot of what you have been discussing lately,is it regarded or endorsed as a true and final creed for believers and scholars? I find it interesting wording in it.Article 2,3,and 19 have interesting explanations.I noticed everything written on it has a “we affirm or we deny” and when you read them ,affirm seems predicated on personal belief and faith and deny predicated on human logic or suppositions .Authority is often used as a form of being obedient to God..Just wondering what are your thoughts on this document.Thanks

    • Bart
      Bart  October 25, 2019

      It’s accepted by a number of evangelicals, but not by the church at large, no.

  8. Avatar
    Stephen  October 24, 2019

    The Gospel Differences Panel Discussion at The Defenders Conference is on YouTube-

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_dm5VOufZ_U

    I realize that Christian belief doesn’t preclude good scholarship Prof Ehrman; you mention Father Raymond Brown in your comments. And I do sympathize with these gentlemen making an attempt to balance their scholarship with their faith. But I think it’s pretty clear that their scholarship is being shaped by their prior faith commitments and there’s simply a point beyond which they cannot go.

  9. Avatar
    Silver  October 24, 2019

    An off-post question if I may, please.
    As I understand it, many NT manuscript fragments were found at Oxyrhynchus in a rubbish dump along with other items of trash of all description. Has any theory been advanced as to why these copies of sacred scripture should have been thus discarded? Is it possible that they were recognised, at the time, as badly copied examples and were thrown away for that reason?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 25, 2019

      They were almost certainly worn out and replaced by newer copies. No need to keep an old copy of a book if you’ve just bought a brand new one….

  10. Avatar
    flshrP  October 24, 2019

    You’re doing all that’s possible to do for young people who have been indoctrinated into the Christian fantasyland since they were able to speak. That is, you are helping them to think about what they believe and why they believe what they believe.

    A very small fraction will be able to take it from there and learn to think critically and skeptically about their beliefs. Like any skill this one takes time and practice to become proficient. Perhaps 20 or 30 years of effort will be needed to overcome this childhood indoctrination.

    Others won’t begin to think about their cherished beliefs until they reach their senior years and come to realize that time is running out for them. These individuals will attempt to reconfirm their indoctrinated childhood beliefs in light of years of learning and experience that will raise doubts that they can cheat death by believing in a fictional immortal soul and a fantasy of an eternal afterlife of happiness. That ancient primeval fear that all humans have–fear of non-existence–will become a nagging, sleep-disturbing , painful, doubt-producing agony that has to be resolved one way or another. Either they give up and fall back on their indoctrination or by their own effort they will reason their way out of this fear and face death without these religious fantasies. Everyone has to climb this mountain.

  11. Avatar
    Gary  October 24, 2019

    Off topic question: Dr. Ehrman: Are you aware that Gary Habermas claims that you believe that the Early Creed in First Corinthians 15 originated within a few short years of Jesus death?

    From “The Uniqueness of Jesus Christ Among the Major World Religions”, Gary Habermas, PhD, copyright, 2016, page 29-30:

    “Agnostic New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman both freely and often dates the earliest of these creeds to the 30s AD, sometimes within just 1-2 years after the crucifixion! [fn. 49]”

    Habermas gives a footnote link for this statement:
    49. Bart D. Ehrman, Did Jesus Exist? The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth (New York: Harper Collins,
    2012), see pages 22, 27, 92-93, 97, 109-113, 130-132, 141, 144-145, 155-158, 164, 170-173, 232, 249-251, 254,
    260-263; cf. 289-291.

    • Avatar
      Gary  October 24, 2019

      Here is a link to Habermas’ article:
      http://www.garyhabermas.com/Evidence2/Habermas-Uniqueness-of-Jesus-Christ-2016.pdf

    • Bart
      Bart  October 25, 2019

      Hmm… I didn’t know that. How weird. Maybe you should write him and ask where I say that?

      • Avatar
        Gary  October 25, 2019

        In the footnote copied and pasted above Habermas lists numerous pages from your book where he believes that you repeat this statement over and over. I assume you reject his characterization of your position?

        • Bart
          Bart  October 27, 2019

          Hmm… Could you give me the references?

          • Avatar
            Gary  October 27, 2019

            “Did Jesus Exist? The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth” by Bart Ehrman
            (New York: Harper Collins 2012)

            see pages 22, 27, 92-93, 97, 109-113, 130-132, 141, 144-145, 155-158, 164, 170-173, 232, 249-251, 254,
            260-263; cf. 289-291.

            Habermas’ does not quote you, he only refers to pages in your book. So just to be clear, you do *not* believe that there is sufficient evidence to believe that the Early Creed originated within a couple years of Jesus’ death?

          • Bart
            Bart  October 29, 2019

            No evidence at all, that I’m aware of. Do you have the book. Look up those pages. I stopped after the first half dozen or so. I never mention the passage on them. He’s surely thinking of something else?

  12. Avatar
    FocusMyView  October 24, 2019

    Zeitgeist is still revered in agnostic and atheist circles, so this atheist is not throwing any stones.

  13. Avatar
    Kevin Nelson  October 24, 2019

    Honestly, I’m not sure if it’s a good idea to ask them about their personal religious beliefs. You certainly wouldn’t do that in a job interview, for example. Would you do it with an applicant to your graduate program?

    Even asking if they’ve read the whole Bible is a bit problematic. What about a Jewish student who has read the Hebrew Scriptures in their entirety, but not the New Testament? How would he or she answer? Or how about a Catholic student who has read everything except some of the books the Catholic Church calls deuterocanonical? Your question might come across as you trying to impose your own definition of what the Bible is.

    I’m guessing you’ve gotten no complaints about this so far, but I would suggest it’s something to think about if you want all your students to feel welcome in your class.

    • Avatar
      rgriggs  October 27, 2019

      Being challenged to think isn’t always comfortable. Comfort isn’t necessarily the goal when attempting to push people out of their comfort zones.

    • Avatar
      Bewilderbeast  October 30, 2019

      If a christian did islamic studies they’d have to read the quran. Same as a Spanish-speaking person would have to read Shakespeare if he was studying English lit. I don’t see any problem. You’d be free to think anything ABOUT it, but if you wanted to study it, you’d have to read it. After the course you could say ‘I don’t believe any of it’ – which is your right – and move on. But to your hypothetical Jewish student in a NT class, it’s not only a fair question, it’s a necessary one, surely?

  14. Avatar
    lobe  October 25, 2019

    Some of my religious friends are surprised to learn that I, an atheist, not only encourage my children to seek out information on various religions, but that one of my kids identifies as Christian. I always respond that I want to teach my kids *how* to think, not *what* to think. Whatever you think, you ought to have a reason for it.

    But I am definitely stealing the “if God himself wrote a book wouldn’t you want to see what it said?” line. 🙂

  15. Avatar
    Fernando Peregrin Gutierrez  October 25, 2019

    Very interesting. But then:
    “’ It’s Easier to Fool People Than to Convince Them That They Have Been Fooled ’
    Nota Bene: While this quote is often recognized to Mark Twain, there’s no evidence that the author actually wrote this phrase. But, “se non è vero è ben trovato”.

    In any case, when I was a professor of Physics at a Spanish University, my students had to accept the theories taught in class.
    It can be argued that in the hard sciences the professor teaches incontrovertible theories and facts, and not points of view, opinions or interpretations. And it is the teacher’s obligation to warn students of problems and defects that affect certain theories and that remain unresolved.

    But in spite of these legitimate questions and possible doubts, the students who, for example, in a chemistry class are trying to argue in favor of alchemy or in biology class, doubt evolution, are never allowedd to pass those subjects.

    But I think to myself that in the case of biblical inerrancy we are faced with a hypothesis that can be falsified (in the sense of Popper), and that is equivalent to believing in alchemy or astrology in a natural science career, for it is enough to point out an error impossible to reconcile with the nature of Nature – this is the case of many scientific errors in the Bible – for that the belief of biblical inerrancy or of the scientific character of Alchemy or of Astrology is false and unacceptable.

  16. Avatar
    dankoh  October 25, 2019

    Slightly OT: What is your opinion of Burton Mack’s book on the Lost Gospel (of Q)? (I’m still looking for a semi-definitive version, if any.)

    And what do the inerrantists say about Q?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 27, 2019

      I don’t think we can say a lot about the theology of Q ,and I think Burton Mack (a really smart guy) goes to far. All we can really say in my opinion is that it was a written source known to Matthew and Luke not known to Mark. Inerrantists could agree with that, and many among the scholars probably do; they wouldn’t say that *it* was inerrant, though, only it’s editing in the current Gospels would be. (Nothing in inerrancy requires the authors not to have used ealrier sources)

      • Avatar
        SeptimusHM  October 27, 2019

        Wait. You think that Q was a written source?? I didn’t know that. I guess I just assumed it was oral. How to do we know it was a written source and not just an oral source?

        • Bart
          Bart  October 29, 2019

          My view is that it was almost certainly written, since so many of the agreements between Matthew and Luke are verbatim.

  17. Avatar
    timcfix  October 25, 2019

    Two quotes I have picked up over the years are; ‘If you are taught wrong you will teach wrong’, and ’All I will ever need to know I learned by the fifth grade’. We are all stuck in the place we were put during are most formative years. Hence there are religions you can only survive if you are born into them. Whole churches exist on the reading; ‘, today’ instead of ‘today,’ , , when the original writing used no commas, no capital letter, and perhaps no spaces. But no one dares question.

  18. Avatar
    anvikshiki  October 27, 2019

    The post nicely emphasises that students in classes have to comprehend the relevant material to do well, and what they believe after that is up to them. In a way, I can understand why students work so hard to insulate their core beliefs, even in the face of all the evidence. For example, I do scholarship and teach in lots of Asian traditions, and for a number of reasons, it’s easier in those traditions to focus on the message of founding teachings than on historicity. Confucians and Buddhists certainly hold the historicity of their important figures dear, even if little can be gleaned of their actual historicity. But in the end, what matters most is the message of their teachings and philosophies. For Daoists and Brahminical traditions, it seems to me historicity is even less important and the messages, the meanings of the teachings and practices, almost solely occupy centerstage. But, having grown up Catholic, once I turned to critical and historical studies, it was very difficult for me to abstract the message of religious and moral teachings out because the redeeming events of the religion were supposed to have actually happened–and if they didn’t, then the redemptive power of the tradition was effectively gone. And, beyond that, if Jesus really was an apocalypticist who was ultimately wrong in all his predictions about the end, then that seems to dilute the rest of his teachings even more, because many were so closely tied to the apocalyptic expectations. Now, I realise of course that there are plenty of Christians now who can take the critical approach, who can be fully appreciative of the historical perspective, and still be fully committed Christians who find meaning in the message. Schweitzer himself did that. Somehow I couldn’t. And the fact that I couldn’t gives me some appreciation of why Christians might struggle harder against critical and historical perspectives on early Christianity–because there is much more at stake for them in the historicity of the “Christ event” really having happened. That makes it harder for them to just preserve or foreground the message of the teachings than it is for other traditions where not so much hinges on the historicity of certain founding figures.

  19. Avatar
    hankgillette  October 28, 2019

    I wish you had been my professor when I took New Testament in college. As a fundamentalist, I really had a tough time. My professor said that certain books of the New Testament that were traditionally attributed to Paul were not written by Paul, but I don’t remember that he told us why scholars believed that (maybe he did and I just blocked it out).

    He certainly did not have us detail everything that happened in each account of Jesus’s resurrection from each gospel. I’m not sure that would have reached me back then, but it might have made me think about it.

    I believe that I ended up with a C in the course, when I went in thinking that I would ace the class.

  20. Avatar
    GeoffClifton  October 31, 2019

    Yes, this is a fascinating topic. When I did a Religious Studies course (as part of a teaching degree) many moons ago, the teacher told us that he had once had a particularly gifted student whom they had had to fail because he (the student) couldn’t keep his strong Christian beliefs out of his otherwise well-written and intelligent essays. The teacher made similar points to those set out by Dr Ehrman above and he seemed genuinely sad that such a talented student had had to fall by the wayside. As an aside, I always smile to myself when preachers use the Christmas story to emphasise that Jesus and his family were refugees (i.e. they are referring to the flight into Egypt), as this neatly dovetails with current concerns about refugees generally, even though that almost certainly wasn’t the case. The account of the flight into Egypt is most likely a typological device linking Jesus with the Abraham and Moses stories.

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