As part of our ten -year anniversary on the blog, we requested special anniversary posts from scholars who had, over the years, made guest contributions; our instructions were that they could post on any topic of their choice for the event.  We had a gratifying number of scholar-colleagues-friends of mine graciously respond.  I’ll be posting one of them a week, and then at the end figure out a way to combine them into one big kind of anniversary blog post e-book for distribution.

Here is the first in line, written by one of my closest friends Jeff Siker, Professor Emeritus at Loyola Marymount University, an expert in New Testament studies publishing in international venues since our graduate student days oh so many decades ago.  Jeff is an ordained Presbyterian minister who, like me, has trouble understanding why so many people seem to think that critical scholarship is necessarily inimical to being a Christian.  On the contrary, as he says, he has one foot in the academy and the other in the church.

Here are some of his reflections, many of them of a personal nature.  Luckily, though, he hasn’t told most of the stories….  {NOTE: I’ve added a couple of explanatory notes in double brackets [[BDE…]]}


“Bibles, Boundaries, Blogs, and Bart”

Jeffrey S. Siker

Emeritus Professor of New Testament

Loyola Marymount University

Los Angeles, CA


I first met Bart Ehrman way back in 1983 (yikes! – 39 years ago!), as he was in his third year of the Ph.D. program in New Testament at Princeton Theological Seminary, and I was just starting my first year in the program.  I have vivid memories of his set-up in the graduate studies room with its long tables and each grad student having established encampments of books by way of claiming space.  Bart was in the process of doing research on his dissertation topic, determining the Gospel text of Didymus the Blind (a 4th-century Alexandrian theologian) based on Gospel citations in his writings.  This was before the days of computers, and I remember Bart having boxes of index cards as he was collating citations from Didymus.  When he told me about his dissertation project I remember asking how one could account for the impact of Didymus’ blindness upon his citation of the Gospels.  My recollection is that he answered, “Good question!”  (It turned out that in addition to having a great memory, Didymus also had a kind of early braille system that allowed for more consistency in citation than one at first might imagine.)  Bart was as prodigious then as he would continue to be throughout his stellar career (still ongoing!).  (He was also a great racquetball player, and he regularly wiped the court with me.  I did, however, once beat him in “Bible Jeopardy,” and more regularly in backgammon.)

Bart had developed strong interests in reconstructing, as best one could, not so much the original Greek version of the New Testament (could we really do much better than the eclectic texts of Aland or Metzger?), but the versions that were used by various Christian theologians and groups in the first several centuries of Christian tradition.  This interest led him to explore such intriguing ideas as “orthodox corruptions of scripture,” as well as non-canonical apocryphal traditions that circulated in early Christianity (hence The Other Gospels, Lost Christianities, and Lost Scriptures).

When Bart produced his now ubiquitous textbook The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings (New York: Oxford University Press, now in its 7th edition) it was widely adopted by many professors who taught Intro NT courses (including me), as it was and remains a thorough and engaging introduction to the literature of the New Testament, with an emphasis on the historical contexts so important for understanding these writings in their own milieu.  Although the main focus of this textbook was indeed on the New Testament writings, it did also address several early non-canonical Christian writings (the Gospel of Thomas, the Protoevangelium of James, the Acts of Paul and Thecla, et al).

Along with the main textbook, Bart also published a companion Reader to go with it: The New Testament and Other Early Christian Writings: A Reader (2003).  I remember well a conversation we had about the textbook and reader.  I enjoyed using his textbook with my students for the Intro NT class, and I shared with him various aspects that the students most appreciated.  He then asked if I was also using the Reader, to which I responded “No.”  “Why not?,” he inquired.  I answered, “Because if I used it, I’m not at all sure my students would know what was actually in the New Testament canon and what was not!”  To this he replied, “Precisely!”

His point was well taken.  His goal was to present early Christian writings, some of which happened to be part of the collection of writings that later became the so-called “New Testament,” but he also wanted to present the diversity of early Christian writings that were historically important to our understanding of the diversity of early Christianity, regardless of their canonical standing.  His point was, and still is, that in talking about “early Christianity,” we are really talking about “early Christianities.”

In a similar vein, over the last generation of scholarship we have become more accustomed to talking about “early Judaisms” rather than some ideal monolithic “early Judaism.”  Just as there were competing groups of Jewish adherents with different understandings of their faith tradition (just think of Josephus’ discussion of the various Jewish “sects” – Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, and the fourth philosophy, aka the Zealots), so also were there competing groups of Christian adherents with very different understandings of what it meant to belong to this religious movement.  All we have to do is think of Matthew’s insistence that the Jewish law still held (“whoever relaxes the least of these commandments will be least in the kingdom of heaven”), in contrast to Paul’s insistence that Gentiles were included quite apart from Jewish law observance, or later gnostic approaches that believed Jesus was really a spiritual being who only appeared to have a physical body, or Marcionites who believed the “God of the Old Testament” was inferior to the God of love revealed in Jesus.  What Bart identified as “proto-orthodoxy” eventually came to hold sway, as the Christian movement grew to become the imperially-endorsed version of the faith under and after the emperor Constantine.  But such attempts at uniformity did not obfuscate the incredible diversity of views found especially in the early centuries of the larger Christian movement.

So, yes, I applaud Bart’s emphasis on the diversity of early Christian writings.  And yet, I think I was also right in choosing the Oxford Annotated NRSV Bible for my students.  While an historian of early Christianity should, I think, ignore canonical boundaries, as Bart sought to do, at the same time these canonical boundaries became important for the later development of the Christian tradition as the biblical canon provided the common touchstone for the ongoing formation of Christian identity (or identities!) in ways that something like the Gospel of Thomas or the Protoevangelium of James did not.  Since I was teaching at a Roman Catholic university (and as a Protestant to boot!), I thought it was important for students to develop an appreciation for how the Bible functioned as an authoritative source for Christian reflection across the centuries (along with church tradition, human reasoning, and human experience — the so-called “quadrilateral” sources of authority).  I still think so.

Perhaps another way to put it is that in my career as a NT scholar, who also happens to be an ordained Presbyterian minister, I think of myself as having one foot in the academy and one foot in the church.  In trying to stand while straddling these two rather different institutions and cultures I believe that each helps to keep the other honest.  The church must be attentive to academic scholarship lest it risk being out of touch with what the best research shows not only about Christian origins but also about how biblical interpretations have affected the developing life of various church traditions.

At the same time, it is important for academic scholarship to be attentive and responsive to what is actually going on in the world, be it a Russian invasion of Ukraine or the political appropriation of biblical texts in ways that turn their meaning upside down. (This is like Karl Barth’s “Bible in one hand, newspaper in the other.”) [[BDE: The German scholar Karl Barth was the most famous theologian of the 20th century]] This is not to say that historical reconstruction of earliest Christianity should subordinate such academic research to modern concerns and debates.

It is important to be aware of, however, and honest about ways that particular ideological approaches to historical research can affect what one sees, just as we need to be able to see how various ideologies impact the appropriations of biblical texts for our current times.  We need to be wary of reading the biblical text anachronistically, as if words and translations are not dynamic and changing (just look at all the different translations for malakoi and arsenokoitai in 1 Cor 6:9!) [[BDE: these are words sometimes translated as “effeminate” and “homosexual” — but the translation issues are highly complicated]].  We need to be wary of reading biblical texts of long ago onto our present situations without taking into serious account changing contexts and changing worldviews.

While I may identify my two primary conversation partners as the academy and the church, there are certainly other conversation partners with which to engage.  In thinking about Bart Ehrman and the Blog he has established, I am struck that he has crafted a three-fold conversation that includes the academy (Bart’s primary home), an educated public (via the Blog) interested in Christian origins, and various communities in need.  Bart’s academic credentials are rather self-evident.  Bart’s determination to engage with people beyond the university proper is manifest in the dynamic character of the Blog.  And the ability of the Blog structure to leverage considerable resources in service to communities in need strikes me as living well into ethical admonitions we find in Matthew 25:31-46, whether in raising funds for Ukrainian refugees and Doctors Without Borders, or in addressing the needs of the homeless and hungry in Durham and beyond through the work of The Urban Ministries of Durham, the Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina, the Durham Literacy Center, and CARE.  (It’s no coincidence that during his time in Princeton Bart volunteered and taught in an adult literacy program.)

I should perhaps also mention that Bart introduced my wife Judy to me at an SBL meeting back in 1994 in Chicago, purely out of common academic interests (Bart was Judy’s Ph.D. advisor at UNC.  Judy Yates Siker has also contributed posts to this blog.).  Judy and I dated cross-country for two years, and when we married in early 1997 Bart was best man in our wedding.  (Well, I was the “best” man, but I think Bart would dispute that!). Since our retirement from teaching in 2018 and our move from Los Angeles to Raleigh (Judy’s a native tarheel), it has been great to be able to spend more time with Bart and his much better half, Sarah.

It is a joy to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the blog, and in so doing to celebrate the ongoing engaged academic discussions of the blog with an international community of people interested in Christian origins, a community that provides essential care for people in need both abroad and at home.  And, ok, it’s a joy to celebrate Bart and his many accomplishments along the way, the Blog being one of his most cherished endeavors.