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Do My Biases Mean I *Have* to Find Contradictions?

I have now had a week to reflect on my debate with Matthew Firth about whether there are contradictions in the Bible.  Now I’d like to give my personal reactions.  I don’t mean for this to be a continuation of the debate per se —  I won’t be adducing more evidence or counter-evidence.  But I thought it might be helpful to put some thoughts on paper (well, on screen) about what a debate like this can show or at least did show, in my opinion.  Matthew is on the blog and he’s perfectly welcome to comment on these posts or even to respond with one or more posts of his own, giving his own second-level reflections.

So here are mine.  Since I’d like to flesh these out at some length (since they might be helpful for others thinking generally about their view of the Bible and what constitutes a contradiction), this will take several posts.

I begin with the question of whether either of us have a particular agenda/bias that more or less require us to see things the way we do.

I will refer to Matthew here as Rev. Firth here because if I call him Matthew it will be confusing when I’m talking about Matthew’s understanding of Matthew (the Gospel).

 

Stakes in the Matter

In a debate like this on a heated religious topic, both sides are often convinced that the other person has a deep agenda intimately related to, but not identical with, the issue being debated.   They have a bias that forces them to see things the way they do.

My view was (and still is) that for personal religious reasons …

The rest of this post is for members’ eyes only.  You can get those beautiful eyes.  Join the blog!  It won’t cost much, every penny goes to charity, and best of all, you’ll see what I have to say next.

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Being Willing to Accept the Truth
Judging the Debate!

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    Sisu  May 20, 2019

    This may have been said previously but I think the idea of debating whether there are contradictions in the Bible is not very enlightening. From a historical/logical point of view, there is little doubt — contradictions abound, as any reader of Dr. Ehrman’s work can attest. A better debate might be: should the following four or five contradictions really matter to a person of faith and why?

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    BroTruth101  May 20, 2019

    Dr Ehrman
    First I believe that we all do have bias that is the nature of being human, we tend to believe what we want to believe. But and this is the biggest But just because it is our nature does it mean it cannot be changed. It is in our human nature to poop in our pants and not brush our teeth but we go against that nature we do the unnatural. There is book that I recommend everybody reads it is called THE ROADLESS TRAVELLD by Scott Peck. In it he talks about a lot of things but he talks about the dedication to truth even if it means changing the way we have see things our whole life. Most people won’t because they don’t want to believe it or say it is the work of the devil. Instead of thinking that we might be wrong we believe this ” truth” even if this truth is wrong and in the process we stop growing as human beings.

  3. Avatar
    JayinHK  May 20, 2019

    If there are no contradictions, how does Rev. Firth account for three Davidic genealogies that don’t align in 1 Chronicles 3, Matthew 1, and Luke 3? This is not a bias, but a simple reading of the texts.

    1
    • Bart
      Bart  May 21, 2019

      I’d bet my house that he could find a “solution”!

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        JayinHK  May 22, 2019

        Indeed. And these mental gymnastics are so unnecessary, especially when it’s so much easier to just accept it for what it is. Confound those Hodges and the Princeton Theological Seminary!

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      DondarfSnowbonk  July 13, 2019

      I’ve actually seen an explanation of the discrepancy between Matthew and Luke (perhaps in one of Dr. Ehrman’s works? It’s been a while) that says that Matthew omits generations as poetic license rather than through accidental inaccuracy. However even with that explanation there are still mismatches iirc.

  4. Avatar
    achase79  May 20, 2019

    My sense is that all religious believers want to treat their own holy works as sui generis. Ancient books have all kinds of errors, and most historians don’t care that much. No historian would dogmatically argue that Herodotus doesn’t contradict himself. But religious believers think that their book is a *special* book, one that is free of all errors. They don’t come to that conclusion primarily by the historical method, though. It’s a prior theological commitment. But the opposite statement – treating the books of the NT like any other ancient literature – doesn’t strike me as a bias. It seems like a very reasonable presupposition.

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    Stylites  May 20, 2019

    You make your point and you make it well. Regardless of what we may have believed at the time, I think that for many of us we did not go looking for contradictions. They came looking for us. You do not have to be fluent in koine Greek to comprehend that the two accounts of the death of Judas are incompatible unless you want to resort to some extreme, highly improbable, perhaps impossible, interpretations of the texts. Once you accept there is one contradiction, it is rather difficult to believe there are absolutely no more.
    We live with contradictions in all aspects of life. If you study History with any depth you will find them. The same is true of any other academic field. In my world parallel lines never meet. In some forms of mathematics they do. Thermodynamics is full of contradictions to our everyday world. But we study these things anyway. I do not think contradictions are all that important. What is important is our determination to move on to a deeper level and better understanding regardless of what we find along the way.

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  6. Avatar
    Neurotheologian  May 20, 2019

    Very interesting reflections. Nobody could ever acuse you of not thinking deeply about Jesus of Nazareth – it’s obvious to me that you are a deeply thoughtful peson. That’s partly why your books are so good and, together with your scholarship, why you have made such a significant theological contribution to the issue of the historical Jesus. But does anyone really know themesleves well enough to fully understand what’s driving them? For instance, if you really were dead sure about everything you say in relation to what Jesus of Nazareth really said and who he really was and what his real pupsoses were, why would you start a blog and spend time discussing these things with amaterus like me and others? Why go to churches and have debates with all flavours of Christians including stark-raving fundamentalists? Sometimes, I wonder whether secretly you want someone to disprove your views about Jesus. If this is the case, I lament that you may not find anyone up to the task, partly because you have given so much thought and scholarship to every nook and cranny of these issues; and partly because the it’s just not possible to prove the divinity or otherwise of Jesus. Like you, I think many of the contradictions are not the real issue. History is a messy business. I think the real issues belong not just to you, but to everyone: Was Jesus only human and sinful like the rest of us? Was he just plain wrong in his apocalyptic expectations? Did know he was going to die such an undifgnified and agonzing death and thus did he fail in his intended mission. These were the essence of my 3 questions for the historical Jesus on the members blog and I meant them – I struggle with them. I beleive these were the questions for his disciples especially for Peter, Thomas and Judas. I get the sense that it was no easier for them then, than for us now.

    • Bart
      Bart  May 21, 2019

      Well, if I’m secretly wanting that it’s no where near my conscious thinking!!

      3
  7. Avatar
    fishician  May 20, 2019

    I was thinking recently about the abortion debate and how religion often wants to make things black or white, right or wrong. Life is rarely that simple. So it is not surprising that those with a fundamentalist mindset are often both anti-abortion and pro-inerrancy. The idea that there are shades of gray is unsettling to some people. I think it makes for a more beautiful reality.

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    • Avatar
      JohnRedshirt  June 25, 2019

      Reality isn’t even just shades of gray. It’s every color of the spectrum.

  8. Avatar
    AstaKask  May 20, 2019

    I would just add what Mike Lacona said in a debate with you – at no point in the Bible does it say that belief in Biblical inerrancy is necessary for salvation.

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      johnmaxx  May 21, 2019

      I wonder what Dr. Ehrman thinks of this comment. It seems completely non sequitur to me—the requirements for salvation were never even a peripheral topic of the debate.

      In any event, despite what many fundamentalist Christians, protestants, and (to a lesser extent) believers in the Catholic tradition would have you think, the New Testament is utterly ambiguous when it comes to salvation. Part of this, I think, is because the modern idea of salvation has little to do with what Jesus taught and believed, and not much to do with Paul’s ideas. Modern views of salvation were formed in the decades and centuries after Jesus and Paul were long gone, and have continued to evolve as a result of the protestant revolution, along with myriad other forces within Christianity. This is why Catholic ideas on salvation differ so completely from the evangelical movement, which in turn diverge radically from what, say, the Mormons believe. There are, in fact, hundreds of differing opinions on salvation and its requirements throughout Christianity, none of which are particularly compatible.

      So, unfortunately, based on this empirical reality, the New Testament itself is a poor source of information on the topic of salvation. Its contradictions notwithstanding.

      1
  9. Avatar
    Dawg  May 20, 2019

    There is so much here…. always pondered the thought of the Bible as an idol..as a Christ follower, does onefollow the Bible or Christ or both? Are u a biblican (Trademark) ? There is a difference In my mind. Jesus tried to simplify the message, Paul tried to keep his churches focused, yet human nature tends to gravitate towards the complication of legalese. I for one feel great relief in seeing the distinguishment of theological trust vs. belief vs. fundamentalism. The enlightenment is over, why dig the hole deeper (rhet)? Many thanks for this blog, read it every day, along with selected scripture, both I which I think and reflect upon, hoping they make me a better person for this world.

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    johnmaxx  May 20, 2019

    In a formal debate, the belief system of the debater has no reflection on the merit (or lack thereof) of the argument put forth by the debater. Rev. Firth’s faith and understanding of God and the nature of the bible have no relevance when assessing the veracity and cogency of his arguments. To suggest something like “of course Rev Firth would argue that the Bible has no contradictions, he’s an evangelic Reverend,” by way of reducing the credibility of his position is a classic ad hominem logic error. Of course, Rev Firth made the same ad hominem assertion regarding Dr. Ehrmen. It’s so easy to indulge in ad hominem thinking when judging the merits of an opposing POV, because it seems so, well, logical to tie the debate to the opposing debater’s world view. But to do so is in a logic error that diminishes any reasonable discourse.

    I happen to share Dr. Ehrmen’s POV. I’ve read all of his books, and by doing so have come to a different and new understanding of the New Testament and the nature of Jesus. I would love nothing more than to share a meal with Dr. Ehrmen and discuss the nature of religion and its various effects on our society. But my shared world view with him fact does not render Dr. Ehrmen’s arguments more artful or cogent, nor does it render Rev. Firth’s less valid. Seen from this perspective, the illogic of ad hominem becomes more obvious.

    2
    • Bart
      Bart  May 21, 2019

      Yup, I get this. Still, I think it’s worthwhile in political and religious argument (and anything else involving ideology) to know the full picture. I can’t agree more though: the arguments themselves are good or bad, and have to be taken seriously, no matter what. Still, sometimes bad arguments are made for other reasons (an agenda). Anyone who has served on committees sees that in action with frustrating regularity (especially, in my experience, hiring committees)! And who of us is above it?….

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    b.dub3  May 20, 2019

    In the very conservative Bible College I attended this was called Biblicism…making the Bible the head of the Church, ie God or Christ. Even though my professors espoused the Bible as the Word of God, they also recognized the danger of making the Bible what it is not and the mistake of turning it into an idol.

    Rev Firth has unknowingly committed this heresy and this is displayed in his ad homen comments about your agenda which you so effectively counter in this post. A contradiction is a contradiction just like a square is a square. Countering the argument that a square is a circle because it has to be, does not reveal an agenda or bias, but just plain keeping it real. Keep it real!

    2
    • Avatar
      Neurotheologian  May 21, 2019

      Hi B.Dub3 You make an important point about people elevating the Bible to the status of it being divine which you call ‘Biblicism’. Good word! There is nothing writtten in the Bible to say that any of it’s component books are inerrant and nothing to say that any book in the Bible (or indeed the Bible itself) is God’s Word! Yes, all scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching understanding etc, but that’s it (apart from certain bits which are said to be dictated by God himself such as the 10 commandment and some of the sayings of the prophets). Of course it’s got errors and contradictions, its a human book!! Fundementalists by believing in the inerrancy of the Bible, effectively worship the Bible, not the God of the Bible! It’s the equivalent of the Roman Catholic error of making the Pope inerrant (infallible – same thing). We worship God and Jesus, not words on a page!

      2
  12. Avatar
    mikezamjara  May 20, 2019

    In my experience, when you explain chirstians that the fact that there are contradictions in the bible doesn´t mean necesariliy that they stop believing in christianity or leave church they don´t feel intimidated and accept it because they don´t see you as someone that just want to hurt them but as someone that want to just inform them. As you said in a lecture “People are not converted by hate or vitriol, they are converted by love and carefull explanation”. I think the utility of your debates is not to convert people but to educate them. An educated christian (or atheist) is less dangerous and tolerant person indepently of what religion or lack of it they choose. Dont you think for that only reason debating is worth the effort?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 21, 2019

      Yes, one of my big motives is to promote toleration of difference. (Which means not thinking that you alone in the universe — and those who agree with you up and down the line — are the only one[s] who might be right!)

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  13. Avatar
    Hngerhman  May 21, 2019

    Dr Ehrman –

    Counterfactual: Curious, given your previous religious background, whether you think you would have actually been in the position to rethink your prior beliefs – due to the problem of evil – were you not already willing to critically examine the key tenets of your prior belief, as evidenced by the loosening of grip on the infallibility of scripture?

    FWIW, I actually did just that – via a massive (read: masochistic?) dose of analytic philosophy in undergrad. Despite some mutually reinforcing circularity, at bottom my prior view of inerrancy was a function of my prior view of God, not the other way around.

    Another way to ask it: Without the subtle yet tectonic attitudinal/mental shift that accompanied you first leaving behind inerrancy, would you have even gotten to wrestling with the problem of evil?

    It’s ultimately a state of mind which allows for questioning that is the gateway drug to agnosticism, not dropping inerrancy per se…

    Thanks in advance!

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  14. Avatar
    flcombs  May 21, 2019

    I don’t see how not believing in the Bible or any book requires believing it has contradictions or having to find any. After all, any book just “not having contradictions” doesn’t mean it is TRUE! You can probably find many books in libraries that are very consistent, yet even Christians wouldn’t say they are the word of god. Anyone should be able to write a book and not have contradictions by reading what they already wrote. Anyone wanting to add another book or chapter to a collection could read the previous ones and either be consistent or shade things to give easy reasons for the difference. Clear contradictions in ancient collections when it wasn’t easy to spread documents and other issues are important for scholarship. They show that later writers hadn’t read the previous ones, or they wanted to emphasize different things, or stories had changed, or no one really cared at the time about such things. They are important issues to understand what was going on and fodder for blogs. A book can have contradictions and still have some truth or no contradictions and be false. It just isn’t inerrant. Isn’t that accepted to be true of other documents anyway, just not a conservative’s favorite “holy book” any several religions?

    If you have studied the Bible, learned the languages, engaged in scholarship and debates as much as Dr Ehrman and see contradictions it isn’t “bias” it is knowledge. After all, the God Christians now and Dr. Ehrman earlier in life believe exists should certainly be able to guide a sincere person like him to “the truth”. Perhaps the fact that god would not or could not do so is a message in itself!

    3
    • Bart
      Bart  May 21, 2019

      I agree about inerrant books!

      • Avatar
        flcombs  May 23, 2019

        The reason for the guidance comment is that I’ve around so many people that will end up claiming “Just pray about it for guidance” or “hold the Bible (or book x) to you and pray” and similar things. But yet when someone ends up with a different answer than the one they want you go get, they won’t accept it as valid or that you REALLY tried. It doesn’t seem to work so well except in people accepting what they’ve basically been raised to believe or the people they are currently around and studying with. True there are “radicals” in every area, but even in disagreement I’ve always found sincere people everywhere. So I find it interesting that so many sincere people when having access to essentially the same information end up with different answers. It appears to go against claims there is some central figure that cares and guides people to a specific “truth” if only you would try….. the hand is outstretched waiting for you…

  15. Avatar
    JGonzalezGUS  May 21, 2019

    Dr. Ehrman,
    I have copied the last paragraph on this post as a reference when I’m discussing religion, and the Bible in particular, with some of my friends.
    The points you make about agenda and bias is very well stated – best I’ve seen.
    Jose

    1
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    johnmaxx  May 21, 2019

    I apologize, Dr. Ehrman, for misspelling your name throughout my comment… Yikes.

  17. fefferdan
    fefferdan  May 21, 2019

    Bart, you said: “what you choose to believe, theologically, should not determine the results of your scholarship. That’s my very strong bias. Your historical or literary views should not be pre-determined by your religious beliefs.”

    This kind of objectivity is hard to achieve, I think, because we all approach the text of the bible with pre-conceived ideas about it. Y’all religious agnostics have an advantage in this however, because your religious stance matches your methodology in scholarship. [No fair!]

    • Bart
      Bart  May 21, 2019

      I wouldn’t say it’s “objective.” It’s a perspective that I have; others might say that theological truths should trump historical conclusions, and ultimately, I’d say, there’s no way “objectively” to show that one of those views is “right.” Though I’d certainly argue that mind is better!

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      • Avatar
        Hngerhman  May 21, 2019

        Freudian slip? 😀

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        Neurotheologian  May 21, 2019

        Theological truth vs historical truth is a false dichotomy which smacks of relativism. Truth is truth – truth is what is and an error or a lie is what is not – period. There are indeed contradictions and errors in the Bible, but we should not worship the Bible as inerrant any more than we should worship the Pope as inerrant. We worship God as ‘inerrant’! The real question is whether Jesus was ‘inerrant’ (either after his baptism or throughout his life – as in another recent blog post) or whether Jesus’s apparant ‘errancy’ is due to errors of the Gospels in reporting his teaching!! For example, although Mark and Matthew appear to have Jesus prophesying that the end of the age and the ‘coming of the Kingdom in power’ would happen before the end of that generation and before some of his listeners would taste death, maybe Jesus was only referring to the destruction of Jerusalem as the immanent event and it was the Gospel writers who made an error by conflating the two events! You see Bart, you cant have your cake and eat it 🙂 And this is important because it potentially infleunces whether you think of Jesus as a failed apocalypticist which you do and I don’t.

        • Bart
          Bart  May 22, 2019

          I’m not sure what you mean truth is truth. Do you think that “The square root of 9 is 3” and “I love my wife” and “Prelapsarianism is a failed protology” are the same kinds of statement that can be evaluated following the same criteria?

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            Neurotheologian  May 22, 2019

            Of course we could have a great discussion about the philosophy of truth and about the different types of truth, or you could undoubtedly tie me in theological knots over prelapsarianism and supralapsarianism, but in both cases you would have diverted the conversation away from my protology, so I am not going there 🙂 In other words, you havent rebutted my point that the theological truth of the matter and historical truth in the context of the dicussion are different.

          • Avatar
            Neurotheologian  May 22, 2019

            Correction: I’ve made an error (or a lapse, to keep with the terminology): I missed a ‘not’ out and I meant to say: ‘In other words, you havent rebutted my point that the theological truth of the matter and historical truth in the context of the dicussion are NOT different’. Ie the theological belief and historical belief about whether Jesus either correctly predicted or incorrectly predicted the timing of the end of the age are the same beliefs whether they are theological or historical. Similarly, the belief about whether Jesus’s physical body actually resurrected, leaving an empty tomb behind, are the same truths or errors / lies / innacuracies whether they are theological or historical. The question of whether Jesus sinned or not, may, I concede, be only a question of theological truth or belief, because it depends on the defintion of sin, which is not hsitorical, but only theological. So OK I’m wrong on this question 🙂 , which does indeed bring in the philosophy of the meaning of truth. Also, I totally agree with the ending statement of your post that ‘Scholarship may affect what you choose to believe, theologically. But what you choose to believe, theologically, should not determine the results of your scholarship. That’s my very strong bias. Your historical or literary views should not be pre-determined by your religious beliefs’. However, the rider is that this only applies to historically well-established facts, but where there is genuine historical and scholarly uncertainty, then your underlying biases and beleifs (religious, theological, historical or otherwise) will, of neccessity, determine what you chose to believe about the uncertainties. You have stated elsewhere that you have underlying atheistic and naturalistic beliefs (I think), so I think you will be theologically disinclined to beleive the resurrection and the ‘inerrancy’ of Jesus’s apocalyptic predictions which arguably both have some degree of scholarly uncertainty. As for his sinlessness, this will have no meaning in the absence of a theistic standard.

  18. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  May 21, 2019

    Good post. I have struggled a lot with the questions you raise. I have been told a million times, I bet, that everyone is entitled to his/her political views with the implication that one view is as good as another. I still think my views are the better ones or I wouldn’t have these views. But why should my views be better than those of others, especially if the views of others are educated views? How can I possibly justify thinking that I am the one who is “right” about this or that? Maybe I just watch MSNBC rather than Fox News so I have a different source of information?

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    dscotth  May 21, 2019

    “He believes the Bible is the completely inspired and inerrant word of God with no mistakes of any kind whatsoever.”

    Resolved: A theological viewpoint that some specific translation of the BIble (or the “original” autograph) is the completely inspired and inerrant word of God with no mistakes of any kind whatsoever, is a modern theoligical construct without historical basis and is self-contradictory.

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    heccubus  May 22, 2019

    I would put to Rev Firth the following related questions;
    1) does he think his type of argumentation for something other than a ‘plain reading’ of biblical text should/would be persuasive to someone without his faith commitment to inerrancy?
    2) does he think the tyoe of argumentation he has used in this debate would be persuasive to him if it were employed by an apologist for the inerrancy of the Book of Mormon or Qur’an?
    3) if Dr Ehrman were debating with a Mormon or Qu’anic inerrantist does he think the types of argumentation he has employed here would be substantially different!!

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