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Did My Loss of Faith Affect my Scholarship?

I ran across this blog post from six years ago that I think is particularly interesting.  It’s a question about my personal religious views and my scholarship, and I’m interested to see that now, all these years later, I would pretty much answer it the same!    That’s heartening…

Here it is:

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One question I received recently particularly struck me – as it caused me to think for a bit – was about how my loss of faith affected my scholarship. That’s a really good question. And now that I’ve thought it over a bit, I think the answer is a little surprising. To my knowledge, my loss of faith has had almost ZERO effect on my scholarship.

That seems weird, since my scholarship is on the New Testament and the history of early Christianity, and you would think that if I were no longer a believer, that it would certainly change how I look at both the NT and the history of the early church.  But in fact, I don’t think I have had any change of scholarly views at all to accompany my loss of faith.

My views of the New Testament are basically the same.  Even while I was a Christian I knew that …

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    paulfchristus  September 6, 2018

    (It might be interesting to have a series of posts on how my views changed and why.)
    I would really like to see a post like this. I think it would be very interesting as well as enlightening.
    I think it would be a very helpful as well as educational to see the progression of changes in your views based on your progression in scholarship and research. Thank you.

    • Bart
      Bart  September 7, 2018

      I’ll see if I’ve done this already! Hard to remember! If I did, maybe I’ll repost them.

      2
      • Avatar
        paulfchristus  September 9, 2018

        Thank you. Appreciate your time and efforts with this blog.

  2. Avatar
    jachandler@gmail.com  September 6, 2018

    Random question: what do you think about the contention in “No! A Theological Response to Christian Reconstructionism” by Paul C. McGlasson, that Matthew 25, 31-46, places on Nations (the Tribes?) the obligation to care for the poor. Most fundamentalists, I think, say that is the obligation of individuals, not nations as we know them. And thanks for what you and blog do to take care of the poor and hungry.

    1
    • Bart
      Bart  September 7, 2018

      It’s a clever readinng with an obviously modern agenda; but the Greek ETHNAI did not mean “nations” normally, in the sense of “nation-states” But I’d have to see his argument before commenting much further.

  3. Avatar
    jwesenbe  September 6, 2018

    I really commend you Dr. Ehrman on your ability to not need to “de-convert” others. I find that a very difficult proposition. Maybe it helps that you surround your self with scholars who are wiling to at least discuss the possibilities.

    One of the advantages of believers is their desire to proselytize. This gives an unfair advantage to the faithful to multiply. I have never had a non-believer, such as you, stop at my door and try to convince me to believe in history, and then come to their meeting house. That makes it a long and hard road to move people to the historical truth.

    4
    • Bart
      Bart  September 7, 2018

      Ha! That would be great to have some missionaries doing door-to-door evangelism for the cause! 🙂

      6
  4. Avatar
    Nichrob  September 6, 2018

    You mentioned in a previous post that: there is no “eternal” pain and suffering stories in the NT. Questions: Did I misunderstand? If no, could you please dedicate a post on this? (I’m thinking someone would argue that the Lazarus story in Luke (rich man poor man parable) would support an eternal suffering in the afterlife….). Also, if you cover this in your upcoming book, I will read it (and get your response then…)

    • Bart
      Bart  September 7, 2018

      See today’s post. I’ll be getting to the apparent exceptions (short story: I think Luke 16 is the only one in the NT)

      1
  5. Avatar
    JohnKesler  September 6, 2018

    Have you written about the preterist eschatological position, either as a believer or an agnostic? Your thoughts on this view?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 7, 2018

      Nope. I’ve never found in particularly convincing, except to committed Xns trying to explain how the NT can still be “true”

  6. Robert
    Robert  September 6, 2018

    Mmmm … I do like Five Guys, but they are rather expensive, aren’t they?

    2
    • Bart
      Bart  September 7, 2018

      And worth every penny. But the burgers especially. Amazing.

      3
  7. Robert
    Robert  September 6, 2018

    “The fact that the Bible has numerous competing views of suffering, none of them entirely satisfying: I had that view as well.”

    Since this is the issue that ultimately led you to stop believing in God, it would be interesting to hear how you dealt with this issue while you were still a liberal Christian. If you still want to discuss this type of issue, of course.

    • Bart
      Bart  September 7, 2018

      Basic line: I had an apocalyptic view of the reality of forces of evil (not a literal devil and demons) opposed to God that would eventually be destroyed. But maybe I should post on this.

      4
      • Robert
        Robert  September 24, 2018

        “Basic line: I had an apocalyptic view of the reality of forces of evil (not a literal devil and demons) opposed to God that would eventually be destroyed. But maybe I should post on this.”

        Yes, it would definitely be interesting for you to post on this. Perhaps you still believe in such evil forces opposed to (not God but oppised to) the common good, for example, systematic racism, meducal, educational and other privileges of inherited wealth, long-term enduring effects of colonialism, militarism, nationalism, violent theological ideologies? It is sometimes difficult to draw a clear line between the societal cumulative effects of individual selfishness and the systemic societal realities that seem to overwhelm individual proactivity. I think a case can be made for an atheistic theology of original sin!

  8. Avatar
    rivercrowman  September 6, 2018

    Well said!

  9. Avatar
    Meiguoji  September 6, 2018

    Bart,

    Rabbi David Wolpe has stated in print and to his congregation of Sinai Temple Los Angeles some years ago during a Passover, it is more likely than not per critical historical findings, the Exodus did not happen as described in the Pentateuch.He further underscored his opinion that believers should embrace critical historical findings because according to the Talmud, “G-d’s seal is truth”. (Shabbat 55a). So, extrapolating a bit here, if all The Pentateuch were the Exodus story, and the Exodus story as written in Pentateuch has been discredited through the evidence uncovered by critical historians, one could still be a practicing, observant Jew. In a different vein, Rabbi Harold Kushner has concluded through his life’s work of study, service and devotion, that G-d cannot be Omnipotent since obedience to G-d and keeping the commandments does not prevent human suffering. Rabbi Kushner remains an observant Jew.

    We know Jews differ from Christians because the religions are obviously different. But a Jew can cease believing in the Exodus story and embrace Rabbi Kushner’s belief that G-d is not All Powerful and still be a Jew. A non-observant Jew but still a Jew. Jews can be agnostic but they are always Jews.

    Bart, what makes a person a Christian in your view and in your experience as a critical historian? Can’t a person be a Christian and be an agnostic too?

    1
    • Bart
      Bart  September 7, 2018

      I actually don’t define “Christian” very precisely, other than it is someone who consciously tries to follow the teaching of Jesus and/or believes in some sense that he was the revelation/salvation of God (with emphasis on the possible “or”)

      • Robert
        Robert  September 24, 2018

        “I actually don’t define “Christian” very precisely, other than it is someone who consciously tries to follow the teaching of Jesus and/or believes in some sense that he was the revelation/salvation of God (with emphasis on the possible “or”)”

        If you do indeed emphasize the “or” in your definition, I still don’t understand why you would not define yourself as an agnostic/atheistic Christian.

        • Bart
          Bart  September 25, 2018

          I do actually. I sometimes call myself a Christian atheist.

          1
          • Robert
            Robert  September 26, 2018

            “I do actually. I sometimes call myself a Christian atheist.”

            Well, good. I remember you said once that you did not want to call yourself a Christian because you did not think it was your place to define other peoples’ religions. I suppose the next step is to get you to call yourself, not merely a ‘Christian atheist’ but an ‘atheistic Christian’. Or would that be a step too far?

          • Bart
            Bart  September 28, 2018

            No, that would not be the next step. It was the *previous* one. I don’t see myself going back. I principally identify as an atheist, not as a Christian.

            1
    • talmoore
      talmoore  September 7, 2018

      I personally know observant Jews who are also atheists, so…try to figure that one out.

    • Avatar
      Bewilderbeast  September 7, 2018

      “But in fact, I don’t think I have had any change of scholarly views at all to accompany my loss of faith.”
      To me that would simply say “integrity”. In other words, while one may – or may not – BELIEVE in something, we should still honestly look at what’s presented and think about it without bias. Sometimes that may rattle us and confuse us, but we should still (try and) honestly weigh up the evidence. I’d say most scientists and historians (and ordinary people) will have to wrestle with something like that at some stage (the word “belief” could maybe be changed to “conviction” in a non-religious setting – even “pet theory”?). How we respond is hugely important and telling.

    • Avatar
      Pattylt  September 7, 2018

      I was raised Orthodox Jew and am now an atheist but still consider myself Jewish culturally. I also consider myself somewhat culturally Christian as I was raised in America with Christianity defining most of American culture. My family celebrates Chanukah and Christmas for the fun events they are with no religious ties to them whatsoever. I often think some Christians get quite upset that I would dare to celebrate their religious holiday in such an improper manner yet they also insist I wish everyone “Merry Christmas “. Can’t win for losing, I guess. 😂

      1
  10. Avatar
    Meiguoji  September 6, 2018

    Bart- I wrote : SNIP: A non-observant Jew but still a Jew SNIP . I meant to write: An observant or non observant Jew is still a Jew. Sorry for my error.

  11. Avatar
    RRomanchek  September 6, 2018

    Besides scholarship, you appear to have a good handle on teaching, too. Bravo, and thanks!

    1
  12. cheito
    cheito  September 6, 2018

    DR EHRMAN:

    Your Comment:

    …the varying views of Jesus and of salvation and of many other things found in different parts of the New Testament… The idea that early Christianity was remarkably diverse, with different groups in the second and third centuries all maintaining different beliefs and engaging in different practices.

    My Comments and Questions:

    First, I’d like to point out that when Paul wrote the letter to the Galatians, the synoptic Gospels had not been written yet. Am I correct in this?

    I’d also like to bring to your attention, that in Galatians, Paul points out that there were some who were preaching a different Gospel, and he adds, that it really WAS NOT a different gospel, but a DISTORTION of the TRUE Gospel, which Paul claims to have received from the Lord Jesus Himself.

    I think, Paul means that there were others preaching a FALSE Jesus. Personally, I think that Mark’s Jesus, for one, is a false Jesus. I say false Jesus, because I don’t believe that Jesus stated many of the things that Mark claims Jesus said and did.

    As an example, I don’t believe that Jesus actually taught that God would abolish the institution of marriage. I think ‘Mark’ wanted his followers, and those who would read his book to believe that Jesus taught this. Why? Perhaps the author of ‘Mark’ and his followers were believers that practiced asceticism and sex was repugnant to them.

    My main point is, that The gospel of Mark was NOT in circulation when Paul wrote in his undisputed letter to the Galatians, about DISTORTED Gospels being preached.

    I believe that the synoptic Gospels are an example of a distorted JESUS…

    Final Comment and Question:

    Mark was also, most likely, an apocalypticist, and that’s why the author of ‘MARK’ portrays Jesus as an apocalypticist.

    I don’t believe Jesus was an apocalyptic preacher. Neither was Paul.

    DR EHRMAN, do you know if there were groups of believers in the first century, that were NOT apocalypticists?… Is so did the group have a name?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 7, 2018

      The Sadducees are the most well-known anti-apocalyptic group.

      • cheito
        cheito  September 7, 2018

        I wanted to know if you know of any “Christian” groups that were not apocalypticist?

        • Bart
          Bart  September 9, 2018

          Yes, the Johannine and Thomasine communities, all teh Gnostics, etc.

    • Telling
      Telling  September 8, 2018

      Cheito,

      I’m investigating the rift between Paul and Peter, and conclude (with critical historian support) that the people teaching a wrong message was no other than Peter and his group based in Jerusalem. This is because, in Galatians, Paul mentions of Peter coming to Antioch on an apparent timeline just after the Apostolic Council in Jerusalem, and has a falling out with Paul. Even Barnabas, Paul’s trusted traveling companion, sides with Peter against Paul, much to Paul’s stated dismay. Acts doesn’t mention this Antioch incident, but curiously Acts does say that, in that approx timeline, Paul and Barnabas split and go their own ways purportedly over a disagreement about Barnabas’s cousin John Mark coming along on a second journey (this is in Acts but not Galatians).

      Serious historians have put the picture together, favoring Paul’s penned letter over Acts regarding accuracy, and scratch their heads as to why such a rift between Peter and Paul, and as to why Paul was so against John Mark.

      My own theory about this is derived from the Jane Roberts/Seth Material, and shows up also in the Koran. Using Seth as my authority, the theory is that Jesus was not crucified, it was another man, some religious nut out to fulfill the Jewish prophesies. I started out writing an historical novel on the idea, not knowing where it would go or how I would reconcile it with the gospels.

      It turned out to write itself, answering the above questions that puzzle historians today. Peter knows the truth but is outgunned by the power of the Roman occupiers and by Paul’s twisted message that he derived from a “reverse engineered” Son of God crucified narrative. Paul concocts a salvation message based on the conventional wisdom that Jesus was crucified, and this chasm is the basis of the rift between him and Peter, for Peter would know the truth but not Paul, having never walked with Jesus. As for John Mark, in my story he deserted Paul and Barnabas in their first journey after hearing Paul’s heretical teachings on visiting Cypress, and he tattled to Peter about what Paul was doing, and got stoned for it (mentioned in Acts and hinted at in Galatians).

      What happens next is Peter entirely disappears from Acts; from that point the Bible belonging to Paul, winner of the historian narrative, source of surviving Christian doctrine. Voila, Christianity a “Pauline” message.

  13. Avatar
    swaffbls  September 6, 2018

    Thank you Dr. Ehrman. Your writings have certainly encouraged me to think through many of my views concerning Early Christianity as well as modern views of Jesus and the Bible. I was wondering: has there been any arguments made by conservative-leaning scholars that have ever caused you to seriously reconsider views that you formerly held? Has there even been a point brought up in a debate that caused you to think “Wow, I’ve never thought about that, I may have to look at evidence for that (whatever the topic is) again…”?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 7, 2018

      Nothing comes to mind. I thin kall the really good arguments have long been known to people in that campl

      2
  14. Avatar
    HawksJ  September 6, 2018

    ‘The idea that early Christianity was remarkably diverse, with different groups in the second and third centuries’

    Why do you specifically start with the 2nd century in this statement? Did the diversity not develop until 60 or so years after Jesus’ death?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 7, 2018

      I was referring to Chrsitian “groups” such as various groups of Gnostics, Marcionites, Ebionites, etc, which so far as we know had not been formed by NT times.

      • Avatar
        dankoh  September 8, 2018

        What about the Docetists? I think Fredriksen has a good argument that 1 and 2 John are attacks on the Docetist position, which would date them to the late 1st century.

        I would add a general observation that since most of the divergent positions were suppressed and we know them only by the attacks on them (or by discoveries such as Nag Hamadi), it may be impossible to say how early divergent ideas showed up.

        • Bart
          Bart  September 9, 2018

          Yes, they are non-apocalyptic.

          • Avatar
            dankoh  September 9, 2018

            I think I follow you: You are suggesting that all variants of Christianity that were not apocalyptic (eschatological) in nature were suppressed. Correct?

          • Bart
            Bart  September 10, 2018

            No, not really. John’s Gospel remained hugely popular, and as time went on, it was a non-apocalyptic form of Xty that won out.

            2
  15. Avatar
    Amy  September 7, 2018

    “simply become more thoughtful and informed believers. And that’s a very good thing!”
    Thanks for this post, Dr. Ehrman. I struggle even with the word “believer”. Even that word feels a little to constraining for me. Do I believe that there was a Jewish man named Jesus who walked on the earth, had followers, taught lessons about living with integrity, and then was killed? Yes. Does that mean I am a Christian? I’m not sure. I wrestle with that. Do I have to believe in the god of the Old Testament or that Jesus was devine or that he was raised from the dead — to be considered a Christian? If so, I can’t claim that for myself. Do the scholars you speak of that maintain “believer” status believe those things? (Divinity, bodily raised from the dead, etc.) Or do they simply want to maintain that they believe in the teachings of Jesus? Just hard to imagine they would go through so much study and scholarly pursuits to still believe in these ancient creeds.

    • Bart
      Bart  September 7, 2018

      I suppose in the end it’s important to realize that these are merely labels that we put on ourselves or that others impose on us. They don’t actually *mean* anything. They are categories. Whether we fit into one category or another is less important than what we actually believe and who we actually are.

      3
  16. Avatar
    Lopaka  September 7, 2018

    Speaking of the historical Jesus, in his view, would the kingdom of God when it came be open to non Jews, for example moral and charitable Romans? Thanks

  17. Avatar
    godspell  September 7, 2018

    Nothing to add, except that not all fundamentalists are theists. As you oughta know by now. 😉

    1
  18. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  September 7, 2018

    A really great post. I am not interested in changing the views of others either, but I am interested in really discussing views with others so that I can learn and modify my views as I learn more. This may seem like I am arguing to some, but that is not the way I see it. The whole subject is just too important not to really study it.

    A series of posts, or better yet an autobiography, on how and why your views changed would be really terrific.

    1
  19. Liam Foley
    Liam Foley  September 7, 2018

    I would hope whether believer or non-believer that it wouldn’t effect the scholarship of the individual. My question is, since assuming that the errors and discrepancies of the manuscripts is well known in Christian circles, how is the belief in Biblical inerrancy maintained in the face of such contrary evidence?

  20. Avatar
    Silver  September 7, 2018

    May I ask the converse of that question, please? How much did your original fundamentalist faith affect your scholarship at the start of your academic career? I have in mind the story you have related where you wrote a defense of a passage in Mark to which your supervisor responded that perhaps the gospel writer just made a mistake! How long did this apologetic tendency persist?

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