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Does a Person Need the Holy Spirit to Interpret the Bible? Is John’s Gospel Accurate? Readers Mailbag August 7, 2016

Does a person need to “have the Holy Spirit” in order to interpret the Bible?  And does the Gospel of John give a historically accurate accounting of the teachings of Jesus?  These are the two questions I will be dealing with on this week’s Readers’ Mailbag.  If you have any questions, simply ask them as a comment to any of the posts on the blog, and I’ll add them to the list.

 

QUESTION:

How do you respond to those who say “you can’t correctly interpret the bible unless you have the Holy Spirit”

 

RESPONSE:

I’ve never found it at all convincing that a person needs the Holy Spirit in order to interpret the Bible.  As an agnostic, of course, I don’t believe in the Holy Spirit (since I don’t believe in God).  But even when I did believe in the Holy Spirit, I thought that it was silly to claim that a person could not interpret the Bible correctly without the Spirit – for a couple of reasons that have always struck me as virtually irrefutable.

The first is this: if it’s true that the Holy Spirit is the one who provides the correct interpretation of Scripture, then why is it that so many people who claim to have the Holy Spirit cannot agree on what the Bible means?   This is simply an empirical fact that is not open to dispute.  Different Christian interpreters of the Bible, all of them claiming to be guided by the Holy Spirit based on humble prayer, come away with diametrically opposed interpretations of major important passages, of minor less important passages, and of major biblical themes and doctrines – just about everything.

I saw this vividly when I was myself a fundamentalist Christian: clear and hard-core different interpretations of major issues, by devout and spiritual Christians, based on how the New Testament was being read.   As a poignant example: I had come out of a charismatic background where we believed that “speaking in tongues” was the clearest manifestation of God’s spirit, based on our reading of Acts 2 and 1 Corinthians 12 and 14.   At Moody Bible Institute, on the other hand, we were taught that charismatic activity, and especially the speaking in tongues, was a demonic activity and that the charismatic group from which I had come was misinterpreting these passages.  Well, which is it?  Both groups claimed to be representing the views of the Holy Spirit that had guided their reading of Scripture.

I could point to passage after passage after passage where well-meaning and clear headed Christians who claim to be given their understanding by the Spirit provide two, three, or four contradictory interpretations of the passage.  So what is the evidence that the Spirit assists in interpretation?

The second reason I’ve never bought this is that as a complete agnostic who does not believe in the Holy Spirit, I have studied passages and come to the very same conclusions as those who claim the Spirit has told them what the passages mean.  If I “need” the Holy Spirit to interpret these passages, why have I interpreted them in the same way that people who have the Holy Spirit has interpreted them?  Seems like I’ve done all right without the Spirit.

And there’s a reason for that.  Whatever you think about God, the Holy Spirit, or the Bible – the Bible is written in human languages following human rules of spelling and grammar and coming out of completely human situations lived in by human authors.  To interpret the Bible you need to be a human, one who can read words and understand sentences.  Even if the Bible is inspired, it is inspired in human words and is, therefore, susceptible of human understanding.  My view is that the Spirit does not contribute to the process.

 

QUESTION:

I believe you wrote that you were convinced that the current version of the beginning of John’s gospel is an accurate version of what the author actually said. You may be right, but I doubt that this gospel has very much if anything to do with Jesus’ actual teachings. In John’s gospel Jesus, the humble Galilean, speaks like a Greek philosopher–a very pompous Greek philosopher. He also attacks the Jews as if he were not one himself. In general, the gospels may be regarded as historical fiction, but this one is sheer fantasy.

 

RESPONSE:

I think it is important to differentiate between two questions.   A lot of people confuse these questions, but they need to be understood as clearly different and, in fact, virtually unrelated.  The first question is whether we can know what the authors of the New Testament wrote.  The second is whether what they wrote is correct.   In this case, the first question has to do with John’s Gospel.  Can we know what John wrote about Jesus’ teachings?   The second question is whether what John wrote about Jesus’ teachings is accurate with respect to what Jesus (the man himself) actually taught.

I’m not sure if the questioner confused the questions or not.   He doesn’t seem to have done so but I’m not sure – if he didn’t, I don’t know why he would raise both issues (as related) (since they’re unrelated).

On the first question: my view is that we cannot know with 100% certainly what John originally wrote, but we can know with virtual certainty about much or even most of what he wrote.  We may be wrong, but that doesn’t mean we can’t be pretty certain in places (even as we are pretty uncertain in other places).  I am pretty certain that the author of John began his Gospel in its final, published form, whether he was one author, or several authors, or a later editor who put together a combination of sources at different times, or several editors who put together their various sources at various times – however you slice it, whoever published the Gospel as we have it today, started his book by saying: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”   (I may not know what the original wording of John 1:3 was, or John 1:18, or John 20:31, or many verses in between, but I’m pretty certain about 1:1).

I’m about as certain of that as I am that Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address.  I may be wrong, but I’m pretty certain.  (I may be wrong about Lincoln too!)

So that’s one thing.   Does that mean than the author correctly relates the sayings of Jesus?  No, it has no bearing on that question, one way or the other.  I personally don’t think at all that most of things on Jesus’ lips in John’s Gospel are things he really said.  I think we have very good reasons indeed for doubting that he had the conversation with Nicodemus recorded in John 3, the conversation with the Samaritan woman in chapter 4, the conversations with his Jewish opponents in chapters 5 and 8, the conversation with Mary and Martha in chapter 11, the Farewell Discourse with his disciples in chapters 13-17, and so on.  Do I think we know what John said Jesus said in all these chapters?  Pretty much, although there are places where we simply probably do not know.  Did Jesus really say these things?  He said some of them, but not most of them, in my considered judgment.  But those are different questions!

And they have to be decided on different grounds.  The first set of questions is answered by studying the surviving manuscripts of the New Testament (that’s called textual criticism), the second set of questions is by analyzing the teachings of Jesus in light of other sources and our historical knowledge of the period, and related matters (that’s called historical criticism).  Two different things!  And vital to keep them straight!

IF YOU DON”T BELONG TO THE BLOG YET, you need to REALIZE:  You could be getting full posts like this *all* the time!  JOIN!! It doesn’t cost much and every dime raised goes to charities dealing with hunger and homelessness.

 

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Did Ancient Secretaries Actually Compose Writings? A Blast from the Past
How Did Ancient Writers Use Secretaries? A Blast from the Past

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Comments

  1. doug  August 7, 2016

    One wonders: If the “Holy Spirit” could guide us, why would we need so much scripture that people would inevitably misinterpret?

  2. Steefen  August 7, 2016

    Don’t we know who the popes were from AD66 to AD100?
    One would think the head of the Church knew who wrote the seminal works Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John which were not “unauthorized” before publishing them or before supporting their publications..

    • Bart
      Bart  August 8, 2016

      Yes, we do know the names of the alleged heads of the Roman church after Peter: Linus, Anicetus, Clement. But no, there’s no reason why one of these figures living in Rome would have any idea who wrote a book in Antioch or Ephesus (for example) that probably never did appear in Rome during his lifetime.

      • Steefen  August 8, 2016

        “Writings attributed to the Apostles circulated among the earliest Christian communities. The Pauline epistles were circulating, perhaps in collected forms, by the end of the 1st century AD.[a]

        Justin Martyr, in the mid 2nd century, mentions “memoirs of the apostles” as being read on “the day called that of the sun” (Sunday) alongside the “writings of the prophets.” [4]

        A defined set of four gospels (the Tetramorph) was asserted by Irenaeus, c. 180, who refers to it directly.[5][6]”

        a: Three forms are postulated, from Gamble, Harry Y, “18”, The Canon Debate, p. 300, note 21, “(1) Marcion’s collection that begins with Galatians and ends with Philemon; (2) Papyrus 46, dated about 200, that follows the order that became established except for reversing Ephesians and Galatians; and (3) the letters to seven churches, treating those to the same church as one letter and basing the order on length, so that Corinthians is first and Colossians (perhaps including Philemon) is last.”

        4: Justin Martyr, First Apology, 67.3
        5: Ferguson, Everett (2002), “Factors leading to the Selection and Closure of the New Testament Canon”, in McDonald, LM; Sanders, JA, The Canon Debate, Hendrickson.
        6: Irenaeus, Adversus Haereses, 3.11.8.

        QUESTION: Two more Jewish Roman Wars (ending 117 and 135) go by and not until after those do we get Irenaeus (about 45 years after the last Jewish-Roman War) mention of four gospels in 180 CE–more or less than 100 years after Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John. Irenaeus sheds no light on who the original authors were? Did Irenaeus provide info on where they were written (Antioch or Ephesus)?

        Mark
        Rome (Mark uses a number of Latin terms), Galilee, Antioch (third-largest city in the Roman Empire, located in northern Syria), and southern Syria have all been offered as alternative places of authorship

        Matthew
        The author of Matthew wrote for a community of Greek-speaking Jewish Christians located probably in Syria (Antioch, the largest city in Roman Syria and the third-largest in the empire, is often mentioned)

        So, is the understanding AD70, Jerusalem is gone, then Syria becomes the nearest and next largest Jewish metropolis (totally bypassing Sephoris and Caesara)

        Luke don’t know where but I don’t remember you bringing up the Western-Alexandrian controversy:
        The earliest witnesses (the technical term for written manuscripts) for Luke’s gospel fall into two “families” with considerable differences between them, the Western and the Alexandrian, and the dominant view is that the Western text represents a process of deliberate revision, as the variations seem to form specific patterns.

        Misquoting Jesus or the more scholarly version gets into this?

        John
        It arose in a Jewish Christian community in the process of breaking from the Jewish synagogue.
        – from Delbert Burkett’s Introduction to the New Testament and Christian origins

        When you write about this, do you map the dissension? Javne to Syria to Alexandria to Rome to Babylon? I think in one of your Great Courses you do mention Jews (and maybe Christians, too) did want Rome to see a distinction. In Roman History, Emperor Domitian was not fond of “fake” Jews.

        • Bart
          Bart  August 9, 2016

          No, Irenaeus does not say where the Gospels were written. And we don’t really know either!

  3. talmoore
    talmoore  August 7, 2016

    Dr. Ehrman, could you do a series on the Diatessaron? For example, what can we infer was the theological or christological agenda behind Titian’s attempt at harmonizing the Gospels? Also, what was the historical context into which it was seen as necessary to harmonize the Gospels (and not just with the Diatessaron).

    • talmoore
      talmoore  August 7, 2016

      NB: I just realized I’ve confused Titian the renaissance painter with Tatian the author of the Diatessaron.

    • Bart
      Bart  August 8, 2016

      Interesting idea!

  4. stokerslodge  August 7, 2016

    Bart, on the subject of biblical interpretation: when you read the bible as an evangelical Christian, did you regard the New Testament writings (Romans chapter 9, 10, 11, for example) as favoring Calvinism or Arminianism? If you were asked now, as an unbeliever, to state which of these two schools of theology has more scriptural support, which one would you choose?

  5. moose  August 7, 2016

    Mr. Ehrman. If you allow me; These questions may actually have more in common than one first might think.
    Looking at the opening section of John’s Gospel, we see an obvious personification of “the Word”. And what’s more striking, it says,:”the Word was God!” What?! “The Father, the Son, the Holy Ghost” and… “the Word”?! No, I don’t think so. So, what does this mean?
    Actually, we find “the Word” again in almost all prophetic writings – “The Word came to the Prophet”; for instance to Isaiah, Jeremiah, Micha, etc. Perhaps the early Christians personified the Word given to the prophets of the Old Testament in the same way we see John do a personification in the New Testament?
    What could then possibly be personified by “the Word”? Look at John 15,26:
    “But when the Comforter is come, whom I will send unto you from the Father, even the Spirit of truth, which proceedeth from the Father, he shall testify of me.”
    The Comforter, the Spirit of truth … “the Word” shall testify of me.

    • SidDhartha1953  August 11, 2016

      If John 1:14ff. is from the original document, isn’t it obvious that he means to say the Word is synonomous with Jesus the flesh and blood human?

      • Bart
        Bart  August 12, 2016

        I wouldn’t say “synonymous.” The Word existed (for an eternity!) before the flesh and blood Jesus did!

  6. Liam Foley  August 7, 2016

    I do understand the second part of the question and it is something I have given much thought. Often Christians believe they have a singular view of Jesus, what he was like and how he acted and what he said. After reading all Four Gospels I find that one cannot really walk away with a singular portrait of Jesus and his personality. In Mark you often have a very humble Jesus who wants to keep things quiet while in John you have Jesus practically proclaiming his divinity by shouting it from the rooftops! Yes, he is frequently attacking the Jews in John’s Gospel.

    In your work, do you see Jesus being depicted different from Gospel to Gospel? Is Jesus depicted consistently in the Synoptic Gospels and only different in John, or is he truly depicted differently from Gospel to Gospel?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 8, 2016

      Yes, it’s a main theme of my work that each Gospel is different in highly significant ways — all four (not just John vs. the Synoptics)

      • Rick
        Rick  August 8, 2016

        Wild crazy thought… but, has any work been done on whether the Jesus of the differing Gospels may be sourced to some degree from different people? Not to go mythicist on this to say he was a pure composite but could some of the differences/stories be accounted for by others such as Hanina Ben Dosa ?

        • Bart
          Bart  August 9, 2016

          People have thought about it, but there aren’t any direct correlations that we can draw.

  7. Mhamed Errifi  August 7, 2016

    hello Bart

    i just want to stress one important fact in islam . we dont say you have to have holy spirit to interpret koran. our requirment has to do with mastering tools of interpretation which is the masteryof the 7 centiry Arabic Language. This means mastering Arabic grammar, syntax, morphology, rhetoric, poetry and prose , etymology and Qur’anic exegesis. Without mastery of these disciplines, error will be likely,indeed inevitable.

    • JR  August 15, 2016

      Sadly most of the world don’t have the luxury of being able to master 7th century Arabic grammar, syntax, morphology, rhetoric, poetry and prose , etymology etc. Seems strange that Allah would make himself so difficult to be understood….

  8. prairieian  August 7, 2016

    One additional point about needing the Holy Spirit to interpret and understand the bible is that it directly leads to the, in my view, pernicious doctrine of the elect and reduces human agency in one’s salvation if one believes such things. The Holy Spirit obviously has choice as to whom it reveals God’s Word and therefore to whom it doesn’t. The lack of free agency is, to me, fatal. If there is no free agency then you have nothing.

    One of Christianity’s less attractive features is the separation of humanity into sheep and goats. The latter are toast, the former are available to sing sweet hosannas. The willingness to categorize people as either/or is an abiding Christian trait. Christianity is, needless to add, scarcely alone in this willingness.

  9. rivercrowman  August 7, 2016

    My born again Christian neighbor believes you need to have ‘holy spirit’ and prayer to get anything out of Bible study, for anyone else “it’s just a bunch of words.” I heard him once speak in tongues too at a Men’s Christian breakfast meeting. When I asked him if anyone knew what he was praying he said “no, only the Holy Spirit, who he was speaking through, knew.”

  10. Saemund  August 7, 2016

    Speaking of the holy spirit, have you ever addressed how Christians came to believe that the holy spirit is God? I was just reading one of your posts from March, 2015, in which you explained how people joined the name YHWH (JHVH) and the title Adonai to get the name “Jehovah.” One of the users posted a comment with a question as to whether you would ever (sorry about the accidental rhyme…) consider on your blog how the belief in the holy spirit evolved. To my knowledge, saying that the holy spirit is God would be completely absurd to first-century writers of the Jewish (Jesus) sect. Have you ever posted or written anything on that topic? If not, will you?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 8, 2016

      I’m not sure I’ve ever dealt with it on the blog. I’ll think about addressing it. It’s a difficult topic because there isn’t much information about it… (at least in comparison to the christological and trinitarian controversies in se)

      • Stephen  August 8, 2016

        Can I second this request? A series of posts on the Holy Spirit would be very interesting!

        thanks

      • SidDhartha1953  August 11, 2016

        I’ll make it a trinity of requests. I should have thought the early Xians would have considered the Holy Spirit to have been an epithet for the one God. Did the question of the place of the HS not occur after it became generally agreed that Jesus was in some sense a member of a Divine Dynamic Duo? God and Son, Inc?

        • Bart
          Bart  August 12, 2016

          Yes, first came the qeustion of Christ in relation to the Father. Then and only then did the status of the Holy Spirit become a pressing issue.

    • talmoore
      talmoore  August 8, 2016

      In the Hebrew Bible the Holy Spirit (Ruach haQodesh) is a representation of God’s word entering a prophet who speaks God’s will to Israel. Some passages of the Prophets (e.g. Joel 2:28-29; 3:1-2MT) were interpreted to predict that the Holy Spirit, i.e. the spirit of prophesy, would enter all of the saved faithful during the End Times, allowing them to prophesy. The Holy Spirit itself wasn’t personified until the early Christians made it a part of the Holy Trinity. Medieval Judaism and Islam, on the other hand, came to identify and personify the Voice of God (the so-called Bath Qol or Heavenly Voice) with the archangel Gabriel.

      • Saemund  August 12, 2016

        I thought it would not be an entity but sort of like Yahweh’s power. It wouldn’t make sense for the holy spirit not to have a name if it were a god/God.

        • talmoore
          talmoore  August 12, 2016

          The early Hebrew notion of the Ruach haQodesh (Holy Spirit) is rather convoluted and seems to have gone through periods of evolution. When the Torah was written (probably during and after the Babylonian Exile in the 6th century BCE) the Ruach haQodesh wasn’t a person or a divine being in its own right, but was, instead, a representation of God’s commanding will or voice. For example, Genesis opens with God verbally ordering things into existence (heaven and earth, light and water, plants and animals, etc.) through his Ruach (e.g. the “Spirit of God hovered over the abyss…and He said let there be…etc.”) And this notion of the Spirit is in line with the prophet’s notion of the Spirit coming into/bringing into themselves (the Semitic word for a prophet comes from the same root as the Semitic words for “come” and “bring”); that is, the Ruach or Spirit of God would actually come into the prophet’s body, to possess it and control it, and allowing the prophet to proclaim God’s will (cf. the commanding will of Genesis) and to predict the future. This is the sense in which the Holy Spirit was understood in the centuries leading up to the time of Jesus. But starting in the 1st century BCE (a 100 years before Jesus), Jews began to reify and personify certain abstract ideas such the Holy Spirit (compare the personification of Chakhmah or “Wisdom” by Jews around the same time), and that’s where the Christian’s got the idea of turning the Holy Spirit into a separate, distinct “person” from God Himself.

  11. Pattycake1974
    Pattycake1974  August 8, 2016

    There was a neuro-study done on the subject of tongues. If anyone is interested, here is the link: http://www.uphs.upenn.edu/news/News_Releases/oct06/glossolalia.htm

    I could only find that one study. If anyone out there knows of a more recent study, let me know! I still have issues from the whole “tongues experience”. I wonder if others with the same background do as well.

    • James  August 8, 2016

      Thanks for link. Google Scholar indicates that the article described in the press release has been cited over 100 times, both in more recent articles and in books.

    • dragonfly  August 8, 2016

      Dr Andrew Newberg talks more about that study and others in his book “Born to believe” (used to be called “Why we believe what we believe”). I highly recommend it. If you’re interested in the act of speaking in tongues you really need to read it to even begin to have a clue about it. The brain is not what people think it is.

    • SidDhartha1953  August 11, 2016

      I haven’t read the article yet, but I will! I think Marjoe Gortner summed it up pretty well when he described it as a social behavior. People who want to fit in with a group that values tongues and awards status to people who speak in tongues will, like infants, begin with simple syllables and, as they become more comfortable, less inhibited, become “fluent,” stringing together nonsense syllables in ways that sound like true language to anyone but a linguist.

  12. Josephsluna
    Josephsluna  August 8, 2016

    When are you coming to California ? Any events coming up soon?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 8, 2016

      No plans just now!

      • llamensdor  August 10, 2016

        Then you certainly won’t be at the Jesus Seminar in Redlands, CA September 16-17. I didn’t think you’d travel all the way to California for a 2 day session unless you were on your way to something important — like Disney Land

  13. godspell  August 8, 2016

    As a Catholic, this is something that never ever came up–needing the Holy Spirit to interpret scripture. I suppose this is in part because Catholicism has never really been about individuals interpreting scripture for themselves–for much of its history, ordinary Catholics didn’t even have access to scripture. Once that changed, you were still supposed to accept the interpretations made Ex Cathedra by the Pope. Your priest might have his own ideas that he’d express in the homily. Bible study class was not something I experienced at CCD. In fact, I don’t remember ever being given a bible to study, though of course we had the New Jerusalem and New American editions at home. (The former of which had none other than J.R.R. Tolkien as a contributor).

    If I absorbed any idea from the priests I grew up with, it was that men and women of good will would find their own meanings in scripture, and as long as these did not openly conflict with the official interpretation of the church, this was fine. Individual assessment under the umbrella of a centralized hierarchical authority. It is not without its limitations. And not without its advantages as well. Honestly, I’m with Clarence Darrow on this–asked once by someone if he was a Catholic, the Freethinking defense attorney said “No, but if I was going to join a religion, it would be Catholicism, because you can argue with a man, but you can’t argue with a book!”

    • llamensdor  August 10, 2016

      The mother of a dear friend told me that when she was a child in the 1920s her priest (of a sizable Catholic church) forbade the congregation to read “the bible,” because they wouldn’t understand it.

      • Bart
        Bart  August 11, 2016

        Yes, that was typical back then.

      • Newbhero  October 18, 2016

        It sounds malevolent/suspicious to forbid individual bible study, but it is probably a good/practical idea. You cant really have an organized religion if every individual is allowed to create their own interpretation. This is why there are thousands of different “mom and pop” denominations.

  14. Pattycake1974
    Pattycake1974  August 8, 2016

    Did Moody Bible College convince you that tongues was demonic?

  15. hmltonius  August 8, 2016

    It’s frustrating knowing how unpersuadable your logical arguments are concerning a Holy Spirit obviously not guiding interpretation of scripture against the eerily confident fundamentalist. One only needs to read “The KJV” to be filled by the Spirit and that the times you did agree as an agnostic, you were being guided by the Spirit. Stop fighting it Professor Ehrman.

  16. rburos  August 8, 2016

    I’ve been watching J. D. Crossan lectures on YouTube, and he is also fascinating to listen to. But he seems to diverge a bit from what you claim is mainstream early Christianity studies. I’ve read a lot about Jesus the apocalyptic preacher who continued the work of JBap and preached about the coming Kingdom of God. Mr Crossan seems to be saying that Jesus learned from JBap’s mistakes and preached the Kingdom had already arrived?
    I see (but not fully appreciate) the apparent differences in your teaching and his. But then I find a similarity in his discussion of Jesus’ “collaborative eschatology” and your explanation of suffering–there is no reason for it but there is a response.
    Am I off the mark? Or is there more agreement here than I think?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 9, 2016

      Yes, the one point where we most disagree is on the apocalyptic character of JEsus’ proclamation. Crossan strongly thinks that Jesus was not an apocalypticist and I equally strongly think that he was!

  17. cheito
    cheito  August 9, 2016

    DR Ehrman:

    YOUR QUESTION:

    Does a person need to “have the Holy Spirit” in order to interpret the Bible?

    MY COMMENT:

    I don’t find that any of the apostles taught that a person needs The Holy Spirit to interpret what is written in the Bible.

    I do find that a person needs the Holy Spirit to discern and see the reality of what is being stated by the Bible:

    For example: The following words of Jesus are recorded in John 17:5

    5-“Now, Father, glorify Me together with Yourself, with the glory which I had with You before the world was.”

    I don’t have to have the Holy Spirit to interpret that Jesus is asking the Father in John 17:5 to reinstate Him to His former position which he had with Him before the earth was created.

    However, I do need the Holy Spirit to perceive the reality of what Jesus is literally saying: That He existed with God in a glorified form even before the earth had been created.

    DR Ehrman, as an agnostic you can interpret correctly what Jesus is claiming in John 17:5, but you can’t perceive the reality of what Jesus is saying, because you have rejected the spirit of God. You’re a natural man and have only a human spirit… What Jesus is saying in John 17:5 is nonsense to you, and you don’t receive it nor believe it. This is what I understand the Bible teaches.

    Paul states the following:

    1 Corinthians 2:12-14

    12-Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, so that we may know the things freely given to us by God,

    13-which things we also speak, not in words taught by human wisdom, but in those taught by the Spirit, combining spiritual thoughts with spiritual words.

    14-But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discern.

    • Newbhero  October 18, 2016

      So a person doesnt need the Holy Spirit to “interpret”, but they do to “discern” it? Arent those both synonyms to words like “understand” in these contexts? Its like when people say that Jesus didnt come to end the law, but to fullfil it, and then they define “fulfill” to mean “end”.

      • cheito
        cheito  October 19, 2016

        Discerning the truth of God is not the same as interpreting it. If I tell you that no one dies to God, you may very well understand what it means in a literary sense, but not in a spiritual sense. To discern the true meaning of ‘No one dies to God’ one needs the spirit of God. That is what Paul is communicating in
        1 Corinthians 2:12-14…

        • Newbhero  October 22, 2016

          But im sure if someone asks you what you think “nobody dies to God” means, you can explain what you think it means, and the person will be able to understand/interpret/discern what you think it means.

          • cheito
            cheito  October 24, 2016

            if the person is a believer and has the spirit that is from God then that person will discern
            what it means spiritually. If a person doesn’t believe that God exists then that person may understand
            and be able to interpret what ‘nobody dies to God means’ but will not really know ‘spiritually’
            what it means. (Read 1 Corinthians 2:12-14)

  18. SidDhartha1953  August 11, 2016

    Is Psalm 51 a composite of more than one original? V. 17 alone addresses God as YHWH; vv. 18f. reflect an attitude toward sacrifice more appropriate to the prophets after Solomon; and v. 20 makes no sense before the 6th century BCE. No one could have thought David wrote all of this (v.1 in JPS version) who knew anything about the books of Samuel & Kings.

    • Bart
      Bart  August 12, 2016

      I’m not sure if it was a composite, but it definitely was written long after David! Had to be.

  19. KathleenM  August 12, 2016

    The Holy Spirit, just to review, is one member of the triune being of God. Father, Son, Holy Spirit. Neither is one of the other, but the sum of the 3 is the transcendental, I guess I would say, value of God. (As in the sum is more than it’s parts.) The Father, Abba, the Creator is beyond and before and remains after Creation dissolves back into Him. When one hears from Him – it’s not the light and the life in my experience, it’s his voice — but it’s “beyond” the Son and the Spirit — only part of the Trinity–like the Holy of Holies. The Spirit is the unification or binding force, but it is not either the Father or the Son, and it’s not as much as GOD, which includes all 3 entities. The Spirit might be equated with the breath of the Father, when he spoke the “word” that created the reality….AH…A….the first letter of the a-lpha-bet. (The transition creation sounds are U…M..)

    In Hindustan we have AH and BRA MA — Ah bram, then Ahbraham — Abba, we call the one “Father of us all.” or Father Abraham in the Judaic traditions–I think this is the Father from the “Our Father” to whom Yeshua prayed…Our Father who aren’t in Heaven, AH BA. Or in India Braham, Brahma….the Creator who collapses the end of his creation eventually with the advent of Avatar Kalki, who rides a white horse, much like the 4 horsemen.

    I think we have some science on Creation…isn’t it sound came before light now? I’m no scientist…In India, M is the sound of the end of reality–AUM is the word that reflects it all as a process. (Also great for ridding one of a headache when you need it by speaking it out with the breath, prana, ruhah….)

    I’m not sure if you all know about Ritam Bara Pragyam — check it out some time — from Sanskrit and Pantanjali’s yoga sutras. By meditation on….one enters the realm where all knowledge may be known to a man or woman…all knowledge is the computer that records history and future events…by which one may know one’s past and future…all things….There is also a sutra for walking on water and making stones float on lakes, other siddhis–many which can be learned from enlightened masters today. (I haven’t tried walking on water…but the real purpose of the sutras is to gain reality….the total awareness, all the values of the highest realms of Samadhi…reaching into the highest heaven… with one’s own inner light and awareness…within and without the realms of the Godhead or one’s own self….) Ritam is the “truth” that may be known, so that we could essentially put the life of Christ as questions eventually after meditating regularly over time into our Samadhi, and see a movie of it actually happening, and come back into our sensate world and remember it as well. Maybe what some saints have done…but not sure how we can validate it and verify it…as Regan used to say: “Trust but verify.” Maybe that is what cannon law might be for Cathlics.

    I think Yeshua was teaching all these kinds of things about and in the Spirit….we just have the stories folks wrote about him…maybe he wrote Q…and then it was lost…or maybe he didn’t write anything — no one stood over him with a stick, they just let him heal and pray….Patanjali or his student was writing about 800 BC so the sutras would have been popular already around 1 CE or so…There is a saint ISA, ISHA about which stories are written in the Kashmir…sort of sounds like Yeshua or Ishua… it has made me think, maybe Jesus and friends travelled a lot before 30 CE, or even had the flying sutra….which creates levitation from the earth and has enabled yogis to fly over land?
    Yeshua had some kind of sutras or terse sayings recorded in some of the Apocrapha…they don’t always make sense in translation, but that means we have just the wrong translations in my opinion…. we don’t know the idiomatic meanings of the sayings…maybe what he really “taught” (how to raise the dead, etc.) was never recorded but passed on from generation to generation…or just his philosophy was written down…what folks remembered of him? Peter raised Tabitha up….it’s said, and all the apostles did some wonders, course it’s not in the other histories of the time…2 billion Christians in the world today…

  20. wisemenwatch  August 13, 2016

    The article on the neurological study conducted on those who were speaking in tongues is interesting for the mention of frontal lobe activity. This is the area of the brain that controls impulse and inhibition,and also the area that is often associated with certain types of dementia. The key to this study is the frontal lobe and how it functions. I have experience with Charismatic and Pentecostal Churches, also the SDA, whose prophetess sustained a severe injury to the frontal lobe as a young girl.

  21. gabilaranjeira  August 20, 2016

    Hi!

    I never really understood what the Holy Spirit is and I am still confused. When the Holy Spirit is mentioned in the bible, does it have the same meaning of an entity that helps you understand Scripture or is this “definition” a latter development? What did “spirit” mean to ancient people?

    Thanks!

    • Bart
      Bart  August 21, 2016

      Ah, big question! I better add it to the Readers’ mailbag.

  22. Luke9733  September 17, 2016

    Somewhat related to this – I’ve read arguments that John’s chronology may be more accurate than Mark’s (that it’s likely Jesus really did travel to Jerusalem more than once during his ministry). I know Paula Fredriksen’s argued that Mark’s chronology may be unfairly given more weight because Luke and Matthew share the same chronology, but the fact that they’re simply copying Mark means that it’s not three against one, it’s still one against one.

    What are your thoughts on this? Are there compelling reasons to prefer aspects of John’s chronology over Mark’s (such as Jesus travelling to Jerusalem twice, perhaps the disturbance in the Temple occurring during his first visit instead of his final visit and so on)?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 18, 2016

      Yes, I don’t buy this view. Mark’s chronology appears to be superior for a range of reasons — it is less theologically driven, for example, and about thirty years nearer to the events described — not just because it happens to have been taken over by Matthew and Luke (whose other sources, also, for what it’s worth, show no familiarity with the chronology sketched by John)

  23. AlanGoldman  October 26, 2016

    Dear Professor Ehrman:

    I’m curious about your views (both when you attended Moody Institute, and today as an agnostic Professor) on the “nature” of the Holy Spirit itself, which it seems to me would necessarily affect anyone’s views about the function/role of the Holy Spirit in “interpreting” the Bible. In particular, what were your religious, and now scholarly, views about the so-called “FILIOQUE” controversy that led to the “Great Schism” in 1054 between the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church. As I understand this issue, the Eastern Orthodox tradition interprets the Gospel of John, 15:26, as unequivocally establishing that the Holy Spirit (or Paraclete) directly, and independently, “proceeds from the Father” alone (which is what it assets the Nicene Creed, 325 CE, confesses and was confirmed by the council at Constantinople, 381 CE). By contrast, the Roman Catholic Church teaches that the Spirit comes from both the Father AND the Son “in mission,” and that there is no reference in the Gospel John meant to indicate “the eternal procession of the Spirit” from the Father independent from the Son, citing the very same provision from the Gospel of John, namely, 15:26, (as well as 14:16, 26). Consequently the Roman Church Spirit, while acknowledging that the Spirit “proceeds from the Father,” nonetheless maintains that the Spirit did so only because the Son REQUESTED the Father to send the Spirit (at Pentecost). Thus, the the Spirit in practice is “sent” by the both the Father AND the Son.

    The Eastern Orthodox Church insists that this was a doctrinal change instituted by the authority of the Pope acting unilaterally, without the approval of any ecumenical council, and acting centuries after the council at Constantinople. The consequence of this doctrinal shift, the Eastern Orthodox Church contend, is that the Roman Church has the relegated, or demoted, the Holy Spirit to a place of lesser importance than that of the other two member of the Trinity, the Father and the Son.

    Does the Western Protestant tradition concur in the Roman Catholic view of the nature and role of the Holy Spirit? If so, it would seem to me that this would tend to weaken the position, ostensibly asserted by Protestants, that the Holy Spirit is at least as much of a necessity for interpreting and applying the Bible as faith in Jesus the Son. That is so because if Jesus is indeed responsible for “sending” the Spirit, by “asking” the God the Father to do so, then it seems to follow that the Spirit would similarly tend to be regarded in the Protestant tradition as having some lesser, or secondary, importance, at best, in interpreting the meaning of “the Bible,” in comparison with “Faith” in Jesus, God the Son, and as that Faith is understood by an individual Believer’s “directly accessing” the Son’s own views of his own Significance by the Believer’s own reading of the Gospels, pursuant to the core Protestant tradition of “SOLA SCRIPTURA”.

    Respectfully Submitted,
    Alang573@aol.com

    • Bart
      Bart  October 27, 2016

      When I was a Christian I thought hte filioque clause was a debate among Christian groups who got just about everything else wrong, so I never thought much about it. At one point in my life I thought the Spirit was an active presence among us (I was a charismatic for a time, speaking in tongues and so on). Even when not a charismatic I had a strong sense of the life of the Spirit. But it was a personal presence more than a doctrine.

  24. AlanGoldman  October 27, 2016

    I very much like your characterization of the Holy Spirit as a “personal presence” more than a doctrine. For me, it recalls that passage we all know about, in which Elijah hears the Lord God on Mt. Horeb in “a still small voice.” 1 Kings 19:12. If the concept of God is to be found anywhere, I think it’s in our own consciences, our own inner sense of the presence of the divine.

    Respectfully submitted
    Alang573@aol.com

  25. Nomad  December 13, 2016

    Dr. Ehrman, you describe yourself here as an agnostic; one who does not believe in God. I thought that atheist was the more usual term for someone who does not believe in a God or gods. I’ve always understood the term agnostic to mean someone who is unsure if there is a God or gods. I’m curious about the distinction in your case.

    • Bart
      Bart  December 13, 2016

      I am an agnostic, one who does not “know” if a greater divine being (God) exists. I am also an atheist, one who does not “believe” that one/he exists.

  26. YahyaSnow  January 13, 2017

    Prof. Ehrman,

    You quoted John 1:1 and you translated the third clause the way we normally see it: “..and the Word was God.”

    I’ve come across scholars like Robert Price, Adela Yarbro Collins (Yale), John J. Collins (Yale) who all say a secondary translation “the word was a god” is a valid translation whilst Mark Edwards (Oxford Uni) talks about an alternative translation of John 1:1 (I assume he refers to this secondary translation). Price actually thinks it’s the translation that makes more sense and Collins suggests Justin Martyr took it as “the word was a god” too.

    I was surprised to come across this as I have followed a lot of evangelical apologists who dismiss that translation as absurd and pseudo-scholarship.

    What’s your view on this alternative translation, is it a valid translation of the Greek?

    Thanks

    • Bart
      Bart  January 14, 2017

      I certainly don’t think it’s pseudo-scholarship, but I don’t think it is the best rendering of the Greek.

  27. Lance  April 12, 2017

    Professor Ehrman: In the famous conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus in (John 3) you mention in a couple of your books that this conversation could not have happened as described by John because the Greek word for “from above” and “anew, again” are the same and the word in Aramaic doesn’t have the same double entendre as in Greek. What is the Greek word and the two Aramaic words?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 13, 2017

      The Greek word is ANOTHEN. There is no direct equivalent in Aramaic, but offhand I don’t remember the various Aramaic options for the two meanings of the Greek.

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