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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.



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



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.



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.



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!

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  1. Avatar
    gabilaranjeira  August 20, 2016


    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?


    • Bart
      Bart  August 21, 2016

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

  2. Avatar
    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)

  3. Avatar
    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,

    • 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.

  4. Avatar
    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

  5. Avatar
    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.

  6. Avatar
    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?


    • 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.

  7. Avatar
    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.

  8. Avatar
    Koryneaustin  October 12, 2019

    Ahh! I literally have been thinking the same thing about the Holy Spirit and had a debate with my mom about it a few days ago. I’ve never seen anyone else articulate it (which I’m sure they have). But that definitely had been on my mind. If every believer is guided by the Holy Spirit and given the power of discernment, then why does everyone interpret things differently! For example, I think John Piper is guided by the Holy Spirit to think he’s the only one that’s going to be in Heaven (if you’ve ever read his articles). And then the Holy Spirit guided Billy Graham in a much more gentler way. It amazes me how everyone can come to different conclusions with the same guiding force. About huge theological issues – Hell, eternal salvation, Calvinism, etc. Also, parables we’re only written for believers. But I think many people can understand them, who wouldn’t claim to be a believer. My moms response was “the Holy Spirit was dwelling in fallible humans.” So maybe John Piper is the only one who’s right, since he’s perfect & the least fallible among us!!!

    I had a curious question… when you were a practicing Christian, do you believe you felt “conviction” and “Godly sorrow” over your “sin?”

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