14 votes, average: 4.86 out of 514 votes, average: 4.86 out of 514 votes, average: 4.86 out of 514 votes, average: 4.86 out of 514 votes, average: 4.86 out of 5 (14 votes, average: 4.86 out of 5)
You need to be a registered member to rate this post.

Charges and Anti-Supernatural Biases! Readers Mailbag August 6, 2017

I will be dealing with two interesting questions in this weeks’ Readers Mailbag, one involving a criticism of my work by the well-known New Testament scholar N. T. Wright, who apparently challenges me (publicly) for taking a position that, in fact, I have never taken, and the other about whether it is pure anti-supernatural bias to think that prophets like Daniel did not predict the future.

N. T. Wright is the author of several books, including Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense and The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion.



I saw a Youtube clip with Dr N T Wright giving a short talk on Gnosticism, where he mentioned Elaine Pagels’ and your names, stating:  “…scholars like Bart Ehrman, Elaine Pagels, several others, have said quite stridently: this [Gnosticism] was the real early Christianity; and Mathew, Mark, Luke and John tried to cover it up, muddle it up, and they told this very Jewish story about things going on on earth, and with, um, sacraments and all of these things, um, whereas this Gnosticism was the really exciting, subversive stuff, which the orthodox church then squelched…”



              Let me say at the outset that I have not seen this Youtube clip and cannot vouch for the accuracy of the questioner’s quotation of it.  Possibly someone else on the blog can.  But it appears that he is quoting it verbatim.

I have to admit that I find the quotation very surprising indeed, since it indicates that I “have said quite stridently” something that in fact I’ve never said at all.  And never thought at all.  Ever, in my entire career.

N. T. Wright is one of the best known scholars of the New Testament in the world. He and I are on friendly terms but are not close and do not really spend any time together.  He is an extraordinarily committed Christian (he was for a time the Anglican bishop of Durham, England), tends to be conservative in his historical and interpretive views, and is much beloved by American evangelical Christians who consider him a bulwark of faithful biblical scholarship.  Like me he can be polemical at times, and this quotation from him comes from one of those times.

He is claiming that I have argued Gnostic Christianity was the original Christianity, which came earlier than the Gospels of the New Testament, and the Gospels of the New Testament were trying to attack and cover up this “original” form of the faith.

The truth is that I have never argued any such thing, written such a thing, taught such a thing, lectured such a thing, believed such a thing, or thought such a thing.  Ever.

My view has always been – from the time I first started studying about Gnosticism over forty years ago, until today – that it was a second century development within the Christian tradition; we don’t have any secure evidence of what we might think of as actual Gnosticism until the middle of the second century, some six or seven decades after the Gospel of Mark was first written, at best.  It is a much later development from the forms of Christianity found in the Gospels (or in any of the other books of the New Testament).  True, I think these earlier forms of Christianity were very different from one another, and that early Christianity was amazingly diverse.  But I have never ever thought Gnosticism was one of the earliest forms of the Christian religion, let alone the “original” form.

Why does Wright assert otherwise?  I suppose because he hasn’t actually read what I’ve written about it, and because it is much easier to attack a straw man than a serious scholar.   But I think it’s too bad.  I don’t agree with a lot of what he himself has to say about the New Testament, the historical Jesus, the sweep of the biblical narrative, and lots of other things.  But I do try my best to understand someone’s views before attacking them.  I suspect he usually does as well – but this time, for some reason, it didn’t happen!



Just to play Devil’s advocate…I’ve read others saying, and would have said myself years ago something like, ‘Your anti-supernatural bias is showing. Just because the events occurred exactly as predicted doesn’t mean they were written afterwards. These are prophecies and God worked them out.”  Are there any textual/grammatical/historical evidences that Daniel was written late?



This is a question about my statement that modern biblical scholars recognize that the book of Daniel was not written in the sixth century BCE by a Hebrew prophet named Daniel who was sent into exile to Babylon in the days of king Nebuchadnezzar, but much later – chapters 7-12 around the time of the Maccabean revolt (in the 160s CE).   One reason for thinking so is that “prophecies” of these chapters appear to be related specifically to the rule of the Syrian monarch Antiochus Epiphanes, whose rule (in 175-164 BCE), policies, and demise are with fair specificity predicted.  Doesn’t that indicate that the book was written precisely by someone who knew about Antiochus Epiphanes?  Or does that question itself suggest an anti-supernaturalist bias, that God couldn’t inspire a 6th century prophet to predict precisely what was going to happen four hundred years later?

It is a very good question and I think it is important to address it head on.  The first point to make is that this view can hardly be as ascribed to anti-supernaturalist bias, since it was a view I had when I was a supernaturalist!  This is the view taught in every major divinity school and seminary in America – apart from the fundamentalist and conservative evangelical schools that do not engage in critical scholarship.  It was the view avidly embraced by my professors at Princeton Theological Seminary, one of the leading seminaries, by any count, in North America, training Presbyterian ministers (none of whom is an anti-supernaturalist!) for their pastoral ministries.  It is the view you will find in all the standard critical commentaries on the book (none of them that I can think of written by someone outside an established faith tradition).

Taking such a view is not anti-supernaturalist.   It is simply taking a historical approach to the task of interpretation, instead of a non-critical one.  There are indeed linguistic reasons for thinking that Daniel was written long after the period of the Babylonian exile.  About half the book is written in Aramaic (unlike virtually all the rest of the Hebrew Bible), which became the lingua franca of Palestine only after the Persian period, and philologists who have examined the language have argued that it appears to derive from this later period.

But the most convincing point for most critical investigators – whether believers (the vast majority) or non-believers (a few of us lone voices crying in the wilderness) —  is the specificity of the predictions about what was going to happen in the decades and centuries after the Exile.  If you want to see what I mean, just read Daniel 11.

Here’s the deal.  Of course it is possible for people to have a sense of what might happen in the future in a rough sense.  But if you read someone predicting in great and very specific detail what is “going” to happen, and you have no reason to think the person was actually living before the events “predicted,” you’re going to be suspicious.

It’s like this.  Suppose a writing was uncovered, allegedly from the 1990s, that said there would be an attack on America soil by foreign terrorists.   Fair enough, one could imagine that someone could foresee later tragic events in general terms.   But what if the writing instead said that on the morning of September 11, 2001, four American airplanes would be highjacked by Al-Quaeda terrorists, and two of them would be flown into the twin towers of the World Trade center causing the collapse of the buildings and killing some 3000 persons?  Would you really be inclined to think this was something written in 1995?  And would you really think that they only reason to suspect it was written after 9/11 was because of an anti-supernaturalist bias?

People who charge interpreters of Daniel with an anti-supernaturalist bias are deeply influenced by their own supernatural biases, in thinking that if a book is in the Bible it must be inspired by God.  But remember, whoever wrote Daniel did not know he was writing the Bible.  His book was included in the Bible only long after he wrote it.  He was simply writing an apocalypse – as other authors were doing in his time.  He had no way of knowing that a later group of people would decide that he had been divinely inspired, and that later readers would take his words to be the Word of God.  That shouldn’t stop us, though, from applying reason, common sense, logic, and critical historical acumen to interpreting his writing, not in an anti-supernaturalist way but in a way that tries to the best of its ability to situate the writing in its own, actual historical context.

If you don’t belong to the Blog yet, why not JOIN???  It will cost less than a Burger King Whopper a *month*, and will be *SO* much better for you!  You get 5-6 posts a week, full of content.  And every dime goes to charity.  So why not?


A Resurrection of the Dead in the Prophet Ezekiel?
The Origins of Heaven and Hell



  1. Avatar
    davitako  August 6, 2017

    Unfortunately, I haven’t read any of NT Wright’s books, but I have read some of his articles online and watched some of his lectures/interviews. I noticed that he makes a lot of factual and logical mistakes. The video you responded to I watched long time ago and I’ve notice elsewhere his negligence (even lies) when criticizing someone. All this happens too often.

    Bart, I’m not being sarcastic, I’m just not well familiar with his scholarship. Why is he considered one of the biggest names in New Testament studies? What were his contributions?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 6, 2017

      He has produced a whole lot of scholarship, including some very large books, for example on the resurrection and on the interpretation of Paul, along with an incredible number of publications for the non-scholar interested in the New Testament.

    • Avatar
      Pattycake1974  August 6, 2017

      I agree with davitako. I’ve read some pieces by Wright online as well, and I can’t tell if he’s confused or can’t retain information. There’s definitely something amiss…

      At any rate, there’s a comments section on the video, and several people stated that Wright was incorrect. I don’t think anyone believed him.

  2. Avatar
    crucker  August 6, 2017

    If I remember correctly, in Dr. Dale Martin’s “Introduction to the New Testament” course that Yale posted on YouTube, he made the comment that the author of Daniel made many “predictions” regarding historical events falling around the time scholars date the book (which you seem to agree with). What he added that made it more intriguing, is that he said the author starts off with several predictions that line up quite well with historical events, then made a few more that didn’t actually happen or line up with history. Therefore, he must have been writing after the correct events occurred, but before the incorrect predictions.

    1.) Do you agree with that? If that’s true, it seems like it would make the text easier to date to that time period without having to worry about anti-supernatural bias.

    2.) If that is true, what are some of the predictions that never came to pass?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 7, 2017

      Yes, he predicts (with his symbolism) that Antiochus Epiphanes will soon be taken out of power and killed, and that Israel will become an independent state forever. That obviously never happened. So the the author was living during the reign of Antiochus.

  3. Avatar
    leo.b@cox.net  August 6, 2017

    Are there critical textual scholars(sorry for the description) who do what you do with the old testament and do you have any interaction with them?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 7, 2017

      Yup. And yup. Two of them are in my department, David Lambert and Joseph Lam.

  4. epicurus
    epicurus  August 6, 2017

    The anti supernatural bias claim is hypocritical because many conservative christians do not accept the miracles in Islam or Mormonism or other religions. Or I suppose they may say the devil is performing them. Did Mohammed really fly up to heaven on a horse? Probably not. Anti supernatural bias!

  5. Avatar
    James Cotter  August 6, 2017

    Dr Ehrman

    a christian apologist posted the following on your discussion forum :

    Yet, Ireneus and Tertuallian in the second century were able to prove the Gospel Texts by appealing to the objective system which identified the original text of the apostles,

    Dr ehrman, what would be the “objective system” does any christian father in the second century spell out how they knew which text really belonged to john and which didn’t?

    the apologist continues :

    and the means that secured the text down through the ages which is witnessed to by thousands of independent Apostolic Churches that basically witness to the same text with minor scribal variations throughout the Mediterranean world.

    So Mr Ehrman, why do you ignore the objective system identified in the writings of Tertullian and Irenaeus, that proves the the preservation of the New Testament? I am waiting for your response.

    • Avatar
      James Cotter  August 6, 2017

      the apologist wrote :

      Now, Erhman and Metzger have accused the Greek Orthodox Churches of corrupting the text of the New Testament, and cite the PA as one of the most famous examples of this; Since there assertion is that this passage is an interpolation, then they need to document who created this passage of scripture? who were the scribes? under which bishop at what Apostolic Church did this occur? and how did they get this passage into Greek, Latin and some Aramiac Texts prior to Jerome’s Vulgate in 384 A.D. Augustine in the Churches of North Africa quotes this passage as part of his text; Pacian in Spain quotes this passage, Ambrose in Milan quotes this passage, Didamus the blind the head of the Greek Catechism at Alexandria quotes this passage, and Jerome says he found it in many Greek and Latin Manuscripts. How did these so called scribes, that history has failed to record or make mention of get this passage throughout the Mediterranean world?

      Ireneus and Tertullian defined how the Apostolic Churches preserved the text of the New Testament and provided the objective criterion to establish the original writings of the apostles, ruling out Marcion shorter readings, by demonstrating the text commonly received by the official churches of Paul don’t have that shorter version (That we still have to day and are still using Greek Texts). Remember Ireneus was a follower of John, through Polycarp, and Tertullian stated Polycarp was installed for Asia by the Apostle John himself. Ireneus and Tertullian referred Marcion and the other gnostics who claimed that their texts were the original writings, back to the official churches of John and Paul to see the official texts of the apostles that are publicly read before the congregation. Why do you ignore the system the Apostolic Churches set up to preserve the text of the New Testament. Irenaus and Tertullian both challenged the Gnostics to establish the legal chain for their texts, and we are challenging your apocryphal texts in the same way.


      i still don’t know the system that was employed to know what really was penned by the original authors.

      • Bart
        Bart  August 7, 2017

        Maybe the author of these comments can tell us!

        • Avatar
          Duke12  August 8, 2017

          I presume the author is referring to Greek Orthodox sources which may or may not have ever been translated into English. I have no idea how old those sources would be.

    • Bart
      Bart  August 7, 2017

      I must confess, I don’t know what he’s talking about with respect to Irenaeus and Tertullian. It sounds like he must have read this somewhere, but it certainly isn’t true.

  6. Avatar
    doug  August 6, 2017

    Per “anti-supernatural bias”: some people say they are afraid of ghosts. But I think ghosts are afraid of me. Because wherever I go – they never appear.

  7. Avatar
    dankoh  August 6, 2017

    You say that other authors in Daniel’s time (when he really wrote it, that is) were also writing apocalypses. I assume you are using “apocalypse” in the sense that we understand it now, meaning eschatological elements, so we can discount Zechariah (who was much earlier in any case). I was under the impression that Daniel is the first of such writings to have survived, so are you aware of any other apocalyptic writing from period of the Maccabean revolt?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 7, 2017

      The lengthy first section of 1 Enoch was probably written before Daniel.

  8. DestinationReign
    DestinationReign  August 6, 2017

    Mr. Wright clearly needs to improve upon his open challenges!

  9. Avatar
    caesar  August 6, 2017

    One argument raised against a late date for Daniel is–it was copied very early, and it seems to have been venerated very early as well–wouldn’t readers within a couple of generations know it was a forgery? There is a Daniel fragment from the DSS dating to about 125BCE. Carbon dating of course is not accurate to an exact date so it may be a little later, but that is only 40 or so years after the later part of Daniel was supposed to have been written. And apparently there are also commentaries written about Daniel in the DSS writings. Daniel was also included in the LXX or OG, supposedly finished late first century as well.

    What is your response to this argument?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 7, 2017

      Most forgeries are not detected within their *own* time. Ancient authors talk about writers forgers passing off copies in their own names while they were still alive and well.

  10. Avatar
    rivercrowman  August 6, 2017

    Bart, here’s the YouTube clip. You and Elaine are mentioned early on. Based on your book “Lost Christianities,” I’m lead to believe Proto-Orthodoxy and Gnosticism may have co-existed for a while, but you don’t assert which was first. When exactly did proto-orthodoxy become orthodoxy? Thanks! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wOzQnDRIp7s

  11. Avatar
    godspell  August 6, 2017

    I must confess, with some embarassment (but less than would have been the case before reading this) that I am not familiar with his writings.

    I don’t even associate you with the Gnostics, though I assumed you were highly familiar with them–I’d think of Pagels first in that area, since she did as much as anyone to reach a larger audience with her book about the Gnostic Gospels–make people aware of who they were. Has any scholar, to your knowledge, ever made such an argument? Pagels certainly did not.

  12. Avatar
    Stylites  August 6, 2017

    I just found the You Tube piece where N. T. Wright unfortunately does claim that you and Pagels see the Gnostics as having an earlier form of Christianity which the institutional [proto-orthodox] church later attacked. I have to wonder if he has ever seriously read either yours or her work. I have read Wright’s “Simply Christian.” He definitely is no fundamentalist, but the book despite having merit in some places, leaves much to be desired as an introduction to Christianity. Perhaps most disturbing is his attack on homosexuals.

    • Avatar
      godspell  August 10, 2017

      Who I am sure he refers to as ‘homosexuals’ (in his mind, that would be him being polite), and in purely technical descriptive terms the word isn’t inherently derogatory, anymore than heterosexual is–but–I’ve found that my gay friends, male and female alike. very strongly prefer not to be called that, and I respect their wishes in this matter.

      Wright is an Anglican Bishop, retired (but you never really retire from a job like that ask Pope Benedict), and there’s been a quiet struggle going on inside that religion for some time now. It is simultaneously very liberal and oddly reactionary.

      Catholicism has similar conflicts, but deals with them differently, having a centralized authority structure.

      What Catholics do or don’t do, they do or don’t do together. Anglicans/Episcopalians can pull strongly in multiple directions at once.

      Wright wouldn’t be so angry if he didn’t know his side was losing. He needs somebody to blame for that. Bart should be honored to make his list. I would be.

  13. John4
    John4  August 6, 2017

    The YouTube clip in which Wright made his careless error regarding your views, Bart, on Gnosticism:


  14. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  August 6, 2017

    As always, I admire your interest in responding to critics in a respectful and scholarly way. I particularly like your example of the 9/11 details. That is quite helpful

  15. Avatar
    turbopro  August 6, 2017

    Prof Ehrman, re “Charges and Anti-Supernatural Biases!”, I be he that posted the original question to the blog last July 14.

    The clip is here –> https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wOzQnDRIp7s
    (verbatim quote: @2:21 thru 2:47)

    I asked because I had neither read nor heard either from Dr Pagels or from you that which the goodly Dr Wright mentioned in the clip. Thanks for elaborating further.

  16. Avatar
    deanegalbraith@yahoo.co.nz  August 6, 2017

    The quote from NT Wright is, in fact, a verbatim quote, and you can hear it here (at 2:20–):

    Needless to say, this is a gross misrepresentation of your own views, Dr Ehrman.

    And NT Wright does seem to toss this term (Gnosticism) around a lot, usually without any great precision. He wrote a letter to The Times (London) this week, in fact, in which he claimed that modern acceptance of the variety of gender identities not only confuses children (think of the children!) but is essentially “Gnosticism”!!

    “… the confusion about gender identity is a modern, and now internet-fuelled, form of the ancient philosophy of Gnosticism. The Gnostic, one who “knows”, has discovered the secret of “who I really am”, behind the deceptive outward appearance (in Rifkind’s apt phrase, the “ungainly, boring, fleshy one”). This involves denying the goodness, or even the ultimate reality, of the natural world. Nature, however, tends to strike back, with the likely victims in this case being vulnerable and impressionable youngsters who, as confused adults, will pay the price for their elders’ fashionable fantasies.
    The Right Rev Professor Tom Wright
    St Mary’s College, St Andrews”

    It reminds me a lot of the polemical rhetoric thrown tossed around by the early Christians, and as a former Bishop, Wright is the very modern form of such a tosser. But such views have serious consequences for children with gender identities that differ from the sex they were born with. Wright’s reactionary nonsense is not only a loose use of language, but potentially very damaging to such children.

    • Bart
      Bart  August 7, 2017

      Good grief…

    • Avatar
      turbopro  August 7, 2017


      I have to agree that in this instance, perhaps Dr Wright’s faux pas here makes him appear to be a modern form.

  17. Avatar
    keithalford  August 6, 2017

    Here is the link to the video clip: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wOzQnDRIp7s.

  18. Avatar
    caesar  August 6, 2017

    I always thought it was strange that ‘Daniel’ was writing in about 165BCE, making predictions vaticinium ex eventu–and then he makes actual predictions about the next few years…which he ended up being wrong about. Are there other examples in apocalyptic writings of prophets making predictions after the fact…and then making actual predictions about their future?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 7, 2017

      Yes, that’s how some of these writings can be dated: they are accurate up to their own point of time and then not. The ploy is designed to show that they’ve been accurate *so* far, and so no doubt will continue to be. Woops.

  19. Avatar
    Seeker1952  August 6, 2017

    With regard to so-called “anti-supernaturalist bias,” I think the burden of proof should be on the supernaturalists. Why is the “common sense” explanation of the accuracy of the predictions inadequate? Wouldn’t a supernatural explanation require an enormous amount of evidence–that goes beyond the circular argument that the claim is true because it’s in the Bible? It also seems like Occam’s razor should apply here, the simplest explanation is adequate to the evidence so there’s no evidence that needs a more complicated explanation.

    But I still have trouble “absolutely” or “apriori” ruling out the possibility that the predictions were divinely inspired before the fact. That does seem like anti-supernaturalist bias. But even that, in my mind, is a philosophical problem rather than a historical question. As you often point out, historians have no way of assessing supernatural explanations. But the heart of the problem is that historians can’t even consider supernatural explanations so they tend strongly not to be considered by anyone else–except maybe on the basis of a precipitate leap of faith.

  20. Avatar
    Steefen  August 6, 2017

    Two Questions
    1) Podcast? You read your original posts into podcast form? Trying to see if I should check it out.
    2) I just did an ehrmanblog search on revolutionist and revolutionary. Anyway, is it only pastors and teachers of adult Sunday classes who make Jesus out to be a revolutionist within Judaism / his ideas were revolutionary (maybe not newly revolutionary); or, would you agree that some of what is attributable to the biblical Jesus was revolutionary?
    Thank you, Professor.

    • Bart
      Bart  August 7, 2017

      1) It has started to happen, and I will discuss it soon; 2) No this is a view some authors have had as well, most famously Reza Aslan in his book Zealot.

You must be logged in to post a comment.