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Can Teaching Be Objective?

I have been discussing how I see the separation of church and state when it comes to teaching religious studies in a secular research university.  All of this has been a lead up to what I do on my final day of class in my course, Introduction to the New Testament.   On that last day, if students want, I tell them what I actually believe and why.

I feel constantly torn between two different perspectives on teaching, which I call the Socratic and the Kierkegaardian models.   For Socrates (at least as reported by Plato) (which means that this may be Plato’s view, rather than Socrates’s) truth was truth, and the person who spoke the truth was irrelevant to the question of whether it was true or not.  What matters is whether one can establish through logic, reasoning, and evidence that claims are true or not.  The person delivering the claim has nothing to do with it.  Fools can speak the truth (sometimes) and savants can utter nonsense (often!).

The 19th century Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard had the opposite view.  For him, the subjectivity of the teacher is everything.  In philosophical traditions that can be traced back to Kierkegaard, it is impossible to separate out a person’s personal views – based on their predispositions, views of the world, understandings of reality, assumptions about life, personal characteristics and so on – from what it is they claimed to be true.  None of us can deliver “objective” truths because none of us is a pure object: we are subjects, and everything that comes from our mouths is intimately connected with our subjectivity.

What does this have to do with my teaching?  (I don’t tell my students any of this; it’s just what I have in my own mind.)  I personally agree…

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Spilling the Beans on my Beliefs on the Last Day of Class
The Text of the New Testament: Are the Textual Traditions of Other Ancient Works Relevant? A Blast From the Past



  1. Avatar
    FadyRiad  May 1, 2017

    I agree with you.
    It isn’t a coincidence that conservative scholars (N.T Wright and even the late Dr Metzger) usually argue that the epistles are genuine…etc despite being scholars.. Right?
    (As far as I understand, Dr Metzger thought that 2 Peter is the only pseudographical book of the NT, which is still a HUGELY conservative position, specially if from a scholar. Please correct me if I am mistaken)
    The Gospel of Lie… get it now amzn.to/2pjfno6

  2. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  May 1, 2017

    I am really looking forward to the next post.

    The first time I read your discussing the idea that a historical study of the Bible was a great way to teach students how to think critically, I said “What?” Now I get it and, Indeed, it is a great way to teach critical thinking.

  3. Avatar
    Robby  May 1, 2017

    Dr. Ehrman, Do any of your students subscribe to this blog? I could see value in getting information they might not get in your classes.

  4. Avatar
    Wilusa  May 1, 2017

    I agree with you completely. But now I’m wondering whether, when you reveal that you’re an agnostic/atheist, any students say either that they’d guessed it…or the opposite, that they’d felt certain you were a believer. I’m sure you’ll tell us in your next post!

  5. Avatar
    gwayersdds  May 1, 2017

    I was a zoology major in college and one of my favorite professors said that the more we learned, the less he lied to us. Meaning that at the Bio 101 level, things are simplified to a point that the beginner can grasp the concepts even though by oversimplifying the teacher is not telling the student the whole story. In essence, lying. As the student grows in learning and knowledge they able to get a greater understanding, so less lying is needed. The same with the Bible. The student can progress from believing that the gospels were written by the people they were named after to the realization that the actual authors are unknown. It takes a semester of learning to be able to grasp that. My personal feeling about your books is that you recognize your potential biases and prejudices and work hard to not project those beliefs on the readers. I am certain that you do the same for your students.

    • Bart
      Bart  May 2, 2017

      Ha! When teaching Hebrew we would teach students all the rules for the conjugations in the first semester and then in the second explain why most of the rules don’t actually apply.

      • talmoore
        talmoore  May 2, 2017

        Best example of that is when one learns Hebrew you learn that the 3rd person male singular perfect in qal is identical to the shoresh. But when you actually read the Hebrew Bible you quickly realize that the 3rd person male singular perfect in qal is often — if not most of the time — written with a yod prefix, making it written (but not pronounced) exactly the same way as the 3rd person male singular future imperfect in qal.

  6. Avatar
    Paul  May 1, 2017

    I would imagine most, (can’t say all) of you students would be familiar with your views coming into class. Doesn’t take a whole lot of research!

  7. Avatar
    James Chalmers  May 1, 2017

    I take it students could these days in five minutes of googling figure out where you stand theologically–learn all the things you don’ spell out the first day about the subjective you–but few bother to do so?
    Or your presence, your presentation of yourself in the flesh, overwhelms whatever preconceptions of you students do come to class with?

  8. talmoore
    talmoore  May 1, 2017

    Not to get too political, but the current president believes that the former president had “wiretapped” is phones. When asked to provide conclusive evidence, the current president responded, “That’s my opinion. You have your opinion, and I have my opinion.” I could’t disagree more with — I could not despise more! — this attitude. The external world, outside of our subjective experience, does not care about our opinions. If objective reality is really eternally out of our grasp, if truth is truly undiscoverable, then that doesn’t make your opinion any more true or important. The truth of objective reality is completely unaffect by subjective experience. Period.

    • Bart
      Bart  May 2, 2017

      Yes, don’t get me wrong. I certainly believe there are objective facts out there, and it is our task to get to them. That task has never been more important than now. But *teaching* always comes through a subject. Still, one of the things that has to be taught (especially now) is how to get past one’s own biases to establish what happened in the past.

  9. Avatar
    James Chalmers  May 1, 2017

    In my days at UNC I heard a tale about a liberal called upon to present the views of a conservative at a meeting. He reported them accurately. You couldn’t have told he was a liberal (or maybe for that matter a conservative). He was a good reporter.
    Similarly, some of us some of the time could accurately report both sides of the events leading to a judge’s decision in an acrimonious divorce.
    There’s a subjective-objective continuum. Or there are continuums, depending on the kind of subject matter. But it’s wrong to say everything we read or say or hear is subjective, tout court. There are clear examples of accounts of who said and did what, of how an argument has gone (both sides), of who’s said what about the historical Jesus, some of which are highly distorted and subjective, reflective of the biases and passions of the person telling the tale, and others that are reflective of what’s out there in the world as an objective fact (as well as in the mind of person telling the tale).

  10. Avatar
    toejam  May 1, 2017

    Random question! How would you translate the phrase ” ἐνεστῶσαν ἀνάγκην ” in 1 Corinthians 7:26? I see the NRSV translates it as “impending crisis”, alluding to the view that Paul thinks the apocalypse is just around the corner. But I see other translations as rendering it “present difficulty”, a much less imminent idea.

    • Bart
      Bart  May 2, 2017

      Yeah, it’s really tricky. It means something like: “The huge source of anxiety / distress that is now here / now upon us.” Given Paul’s apocalyptic message everywhere else, I think the NRSV has it right.

  11. Avatar
    mjt  May 1, 2017

    Do Socrates and Kierkegaard really disagree? Couldn’t I say that, while truth is objective, my ability to evaluate it is based on my subjective background, passions, likes/dislikes…?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 2, 2017

      I think the issue is whether we have direct access to what is objectively true, or not.

    • talmoore
      talmoore  May 2, 2017

      Kierkegaard was a Christian existentialist (back when such a thing could exist), meaning that who we are is not determined externally but internally — what Sartre would later aphorize as “existence precedes essence” — and thus our subjective experience is far more important to our development than the objective reality in which we live. Following the logic of this philosophy Kierkegaard concluded that a person can never have a complete grasp on Truth (with a capital T); consequently, every decision is a “leap of faith”.

      • Avatar
        Kirktrumb59  May 11, 2017

        Well, at least Kierkegaard revered Don Giovanni; that’s a plus.

  12. Avatar
    PersephoneK  May 1, 2017

    But don’t your students inevitably find out what your beliefs are, just based on your profile? Or are they typically not curious enough to seek this out, or not willing to tell you they know or tell their classmates? How can your views really be kept secret in this day and age? Does it ever come out in class?

  13. Avatar
    Chasdot  May 1, 2017

    Thanks for the thoughts. I teach professional ethics at a State University of New York college and face some of the same issues as you mentioned. They often will ask me, “So what do you think?” I reply, “It doesn’t matter what I think. It’s that you look at the facts and make up your own mind. There’s one of me in the world, and given all my quirks, I’m sure that’s plenty.”

    For my teaching, what’s important to get across in the Kierkegaard fashion is when looking at how groups or individuals are to be treated I want the student to know for sure whether the group or individual is part of a vulnerable population (children, elderly and so on)? If so, then some sort of affirmative action may be needed (ala 1970’s Rawls) and if not then let’s aim for self-interest rightly understood (DeTocqueville) instead of Ayn Rand since we can at best judge actions and not intent.

    • Avatar
      llamensdor  May 3, 2017

      However, in criminal law, the extent of responsibility is often based on an assessment of the accused’s intent. The penalties for first and second degree murder, and the various degrees of manslaughter, etc., vary widely based on the judge and/or jury’s evaluation of the accused’s state of mind. No doubt this is extremely difficult, and subject to error, but it has long been a part of our legal system, although it has evolved across the centuries.

  14. Avatar
    rivercrowman  May 1, 2017

    Thanks Bart for mentioning both Fox News and MSNBC! I can switch back and forth while reading your posts and books.

  15. Avatar
    doug  May 1, 2017

    I doubt that any human is capable of 100% objectivity (our emotions are too persuasive). But perhaps there are degrees of objectivity. For example – a skeptic who, after examining the evidence, changes their mind and decides Jesus actually did say a particular saying, as opposed to a skeptic or a fundamentalist who refuses to change their mind on religious matters no matter what.

  16. Avatar
    Jason  May 1, 2017

    Do you ever find yourself trying to present material more “delicately” when you fear you might be letting too much of your personal views about the religious aspects of the material leak into the pedagogy?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 2, 2017

      Well, I’ve certainly become more delicate and less iconoclastic with the passing years. From where I stand now, I think it’s a good thing.

  17. Avatar
    mjt  May 2, 2017

    I’m trying to word this in such a way that makes sense, but it’s difficult. I’m not a scholar, but I know enough to know that Christianity almost certainly is not true. With the knowledge I have of the bible, it doesn’t matter what my presuppositions are (unless one presupposition is that Christianity is true), my environment, upbringing, life experiences, relationships–I still wouldn’t have faith. If I could somehow ‘switch minds’ with Tim McGrew or Daniel Wallace, having their experiences, environment, upbringing…and I don’t imagine I would be a believer.

    What I’m saying is, yes it’s the evidence, and yes it’s the personal baggage we bring when we evaluate the evidence–but there are other factors involved. We often believe in something because we want purpose. We’re afraid of what will happen if we don’t believe. We tend to believe what our perceived peers believe. Or we don’t believe because belief in religious concepts are beneath us. We believe based on evidence, that evidence is filtered through our different perspectives, and (I think just as important) it’s filtered through what we think will happen to us if we believe–or disbelieve. We tend to believe in something if we think the consequences of belief is positive, and vice-versa.

  18. Avatar
    davitako  May 2, 2017

    Bart, I’m sorry for asking an off the topic question. I’ve been waiting for a pertinent article, but I don’t it’s coming any time soon 😀

    My question is about Larry Hurtado’s disagreement with you on Paul’s view of Christ as an angel. In his review of How Jesus Became God, he says: “Ehrman also ignores evidence that Paul distinguished Jesus from the angels (e.g., Rom. 8:31–39).”

    Do you think the fact that Paul mentions angels apart from Jesus (in Romans 8) indicates that he views him as a non-angelic being?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 2, 2017

      The only thing Paul says about angels in Rom 8:31-39 is that not even they (hypothetically) would be able to separate Chrsitains from the salvation they have obtained through Christ. That is not a reference to Jesus’ origin as an angel. It is a reference to angels *now* in light of what Jesus did “before” *after* he became incarnate as a man. I don’t see how that’s really much of a counterargument.

      • Avatar
        davitako  May 2, 2017

        Thank you. That’s exactly how I interpreted that passage. It’s a bit confusing how a scholar of Hurtado’s level can ignore that.

  19. Avatar
    Boltonian  May 2, 2017

    I am not sure ‘Objective truth,’ is a useful concept. Firstly, how can we perceive things outside our perceptive equipment, ie the human brain? And second, facts change as our knowledge increases, so how can we say that anything is objectively true? We might say that x is the current state of our collective knowledge but it is always provisional. As Einstein was reputed to have once said,’ All of our theories now current will one day be overturned – with the possible exception of the Second Law of Thermodynamics.’ Emphasis on the word ‘possible.’

    My dictum is,’Read widely, think deeply and do not fall too much in love with your conclusions.’

  20. Avatar
    john76  May 2, 2017

    Rubrics that are shared with students before they begin constructing their products are good because then the students understand what they need to do in order to get the grade they want, and when we lay out the criteria it prevents arbitrary subjective grading (e.g., this “looks like” a 75%). Rubrics also help facilitate the discussion with the students as to why they got the specific grade they received. It’s all about “accountable” education.

    Going back to my Philosophy teaching days, “Making a Judgement (such as “judging” a student’s essay to be a 75%),” means you have decided something has met, failed to meet, or approximated a criteria. The criteria may be explicit, as in a rubric, or implicit, but it’s there. Making the criteria explicit is always favorable, which is why rubrics are important – for the reasons I outlined above.

    And this model extends to content area taught to students. Consider the example of the ethical question of whether murder is objectively wrong if there is no God:

    When we make “judgements,” such as the judgement that “murder is wrong,” we make those judgements by applying either explicit or implicit criteria.

    For instance, when an elementary school teacher is making a judgement as to what grade a child gets on a narrative piece of writing that the child has submitted, the teacher applies a rubric judging such things as effective use by the child of such things as:

    Ideas—the main message
    Organization—the internal structure of the piece
    Voice—the personal tone and flavor of the author’s message
    Word Choice—the vocabulary a writer chooses to convey meaning
    Sentence Fluency—the rhythm and flow of the language
    Conventions—the mechanical correctness
    Presentation—how the writing actually looks on the page

    Similarly, when a mixed martial arts judge tries to determine which fighter wins the match, they judge the fighters respective performances against such criteria as striking, grappling, and aggression.

    The problem with moral judgements is that it is hard to get non-subjective criteria. In terms of murder, our culture in our time judges murder to be wrong, but other cultures in other times have approved of such things as cannibalism and feeding the Christians to the lions for sport. If we are not to just adapt an arbitrary “holier than thou” attitude from the point of view of our time, individual biases, and culture, the question is what right do we have to judge others that have a different worldview than we do?

    If we are not to have moral relativism, we need to establish what the objective criteria is for judging that murder is wrong.

    • Avatar
      SidDhartha1953  May 5, 2017

      Since it is usually agreed that not all killing is murder and people disagree widely on what killings are or are not murder, the judgment that murder is wrong is by its very nature subjective. 1) Not all killing is wrong. 2) Some killing is wrong. 3) Killing that is wrong is murder. 4) I think I know the difference. 5) If you disagree, I think you are mistaken.
      I don’t see any way around the subjectivity of that.

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