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Faith and History: A Blast From the Past

Here is a post that I made exactly four years ago today, on a topic of perennial interest: the relationship between theological belief and historical study:


I received a number of responses to my post yesterday about faith and history – some on the blog itself and some via emails (I prefer questions/comments on the blog itself, by the way, as I can deal with them more efficiently. In case anyone should ask you which I prefer 🙂 ).  Some of these comments were all heading in the same direction, and were made, I think, because (can you imagine it?) I was not as clear as I could be in what I was trying to say about the relationship of faith and history.

In these responses my responders pointed out that it really is impossible to keep faith and history separate from one another, since in many instances the historical conclusions one draws may stand in conflict with theological beliefs. So something has to give, either the history or the theology. But that means that they are not two absolutely distinct realms.

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Why Was the Emperor Worshiped?
Debate with a Mythicist! And the Book of Revelation. Readers’ Mailbag September 25, 2016



  1. Avatar
    pruffin  September 26, 2016

    Whoa! What do you mean by “I personally don’t believe in objectivity?” That rattled my brain.
    Thanks for the great insights.

    • Bart
      Bart  September 28, 2016

      I don’t think it is humanly possible to engage in any thinking exercise and stop being human when doing so.

      • SBrudney091941
        SBrudney091941  October 5, 2016

        You kind of just summarized Kant. We cannot know “the thing in itself.”

  2. Avatar
    rivercrowman  September 26, 2016

    Bart, a key “fact” in the resurrection arguments among some Christian apologists is that Jesus was placed in a tomb that belonged to Joseph of Arimathea, a member of the Jewish Sanhedrin. … Aside from references to Joseph of Arimathea in the Gospels, is there any historical evidence outside of various Church sources that this Joseph actually existed?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 28, 2016

      No, just the Gospels and sources that rely on them. IN my book How Jesus BEcame God I call into question whether there ever actually was such a person.

  3. talmoore
    talmoore  September 26, 2016

    Dr. Ehrman, I’m currently reading E.P. Sanders’ “Jesus and Judaism,” and he starts out the book with a discursion on the previous century of scholarship on Jesus’s place within his contemporary Jewish context, and one striking thing Sanders highlights is how so many of the previous scholars, even those who were rather radical in their ideas, such as Schweitzer, still sought to make some kind of hard line distinction between Jesus and his Jewish contemporaries — more often than not that Jesus stood out from his contemporaries as being more righteous, or wiser, or simply superior in some regard. And, as Sanders points out, this was mainly for theological reasons rather than historical ones. If Jesus was just some plain old, run-of-the-mill Jewish apocalyptic preacher then he wasn’t anything particularly extraordinary. And if he wasn’t anything particularly extraordinary then he probably wasn’t the son of God, let alone the second person of the Trinity.

    This is one of the inherent problems with theologians and exegetes attempting to do objective history. They can try as hard as they might to set aside their faith, but that bias can still work its way into their methodologies and conclusions, like water working its way into seemingly inconspicuous cracks. Indeed, the only way to truly approach the historical Jesus objectively is to start off with the assumption that much, if not most of the Gospel narratives are a combination of legend, retcon and religious propaganda. One must start off with the assumption that Jesus was nothing more than a normal man, and, more importantly, one must consider the possibility that Jesus was not actually a “great” man, or a “great moral teacher”, or somehow a better man than many or most of his contemporaries. Indeed, one must consider the possibility that Jesus was actually wrong and that his mission was wrong and that his beliefs and actions were wrong. That is, we must at least consider the possibility that Jesus was actually a bad actor for his time and place (and possibly rightly executed, even), and that, therefore, starting off any search for the historical Jesus as if it must inevitably result in an hagiography would be a highly unobjective and flawed endeaver.

    • Bart
      Bart  September 28, 2016

      Yes, Sanders revolutionized the field. I will say, though, that with respect to Schweitzer, what people found most offputting was precisely that he portrayed Jesus so much *like* other apocalypticists of his day (though, granted, with a much more grandiose view of himself)

    • Avatar
      SidDhartha1953  October 2, 2016

      “[Theologians and exegetes attempting to do objective history] can try as hard as they might to set aside their faith, but that bias can still work its way into their methodologies and conclusions, like water working its way into seemingly inconspicuous cracks.” (!!!)
      What a perfect simile! This tendency of even the most liberal exegetes has given me fits. Thank-you for a way to explain why.

  4. Avatar
    Boltonian  September 26, 2016

    Is theology even a proper subject? It seems to me to be an evidence-free (or at least highly selective) method for supporting the wishful-thinking of a tribal belief system whose logic cannot bear even the slightest scrutiny. My view, Bart, is that history is very much superior a discipline because it is honest, whereas theology attempts to force-fit ‘evidence’ into a pre-ordained conclusion.

    • Bart
      Bart  September 28, 2016

      It’s kind of like asking whether “philosophy” is a “proper subject”… (They are very much alike in many ways)

      • Avatar
        Boltonian  September 28, 2016

        In many ways I agree with you but, in my view, philosophy SHOULD be about asking questions (I grant that it isn’t always the case) rather than providing answers but theology starts with the answer and looks for the evidence to support it. No mainstream Christian theologian would conclude that Jesus was not the son of God, was not born of a virgin, was not resurrected, and did not ascend to heaven. Furthermore, most (but not all) would conclude that the Holy Trinity really exists, that God intervenes in the world and responds to prayer. God also demands to be worshipped etc. If one does not believe all of these things one ceases to be a Christian. As a Christian friend of mine once put it, ‘You have to buy the whole package: Christianity is not pick and mix.’ Theology, therefore, starts from a conclusion, whereas philosophy (and history for that matter) should start with a question.

        • Bart
          Bart  September 29, 2016

          Most theologians (except for conservative evangelicals and fundamentalists) would absolutely reject the idea that they are providing answers instead of questions. I suggest you read some! Try Stanley Hauerwas; or Rowan Williams; or Herbert McCabe.

          • Avatar
            Boltonian  September 29, 2016

            Thanks, Bart. I actually read some theologians before I started reading the history of the period. It was the dissatisfaction I felt from reading those with, let’s say, a vested interest in the outcome of their enquiries that led me to E.P Sanders, Geza Vermes and you. The questions seemed (and I am sure that they – and, possibly, you – would dispute this) ‘Staged,’ for want of a better word. The theologians I read were: Rowan Williams (admittedly a long time ago now); Hans Kung (with whom I corresponded); Dr Stuart Blanch, whom I once met in odd circumstances; the Rev. Peter Mullen, with whom I also corresponded; and others I have long forgotten. I think I’ll stick with historians from now on.

        • Avatar
          SidDhartha1953  October 2, 2016

          I think you may be confusing theology with apologetics, which many apologists do when they claim to be doing theology. Theology proper, which I would classify as a subdiscipline of philosophy, deals more with questions of what we can properly say about God, rather than proving or refuting any particular claims about God. To paraphrase Bart, good theology should inform my religion, but any theology informed by my religion is prone to be bad theology.

          • Avatar
            Boltonian  October 3, 2016

            Hello, SidDhartha1953

            I am not sure whether you would put Hans Kung down as an apologetic or a theologian but I have always understood him to be a serious and respected scholar. I will use him as an example of why I am suspicious of theologians. He has, of course, had his run-ins with the Catholic church, not least because of his rejection of papal infallibility. I have three books of his on my shelf, which I have just looked at again. I picked one, ‘Eternal Life?’, at random. He goes through all the questions and histories of eternal life in various societies, much as Bart would do, but then he comes to the unerring conclusion that, ‘…(eternal life) can be rationally realized even for man at the end of the second millennium.’ Yet his arguments do not lead to this inevitable conclusion. This approach is similar in the other two books: ‘Christianity and the World Religions’, whereby he concludes that (of course) Christianity is more true than any of the others he examines; and, ‘On Being a Christian,’ which, again, ends with the conclusion that he is absolutely right in his Christian faith. All this looks, to me, like a justification, using scholarly techniques, for a pre-existing position. Hence my dissatisfaction with theology. But like all subjects, ‘Read widely, think deeply,’ should be the maxim.

    • Avatar
      VaulDogWarrior  October 2, 2016

      This was one of the inescapable conclusions for me once I admitted to myself I was an agnostic. Theology must, by necessity, just be a bunch of guys sitting aroundmaking stuff about a subject they have no way of accessing. That is, unless God has already given us a book…

  5. Liam Foley
    Liam Foley  September 26, 2016

    One of the questions this raises for me concerns both the theology of, and the concept of, the rapture and the historical validity of the concept of the rapture.

    Most historians agree that mainline Protestant and Catholic denominations do not teach the concept of the rapture (although they do teach the second coming of Christ) and that they never did teach such a concept and that this teaching originated in the early 19th century (1830) by John Nelson Darby, considered to be the father of modern Dispensationalism and Futurism “the Rapture.”

    However, many Fundamentalists refute this and claim the concept is not only theologically biblical but that historically the concept and theology of the rapture was taught by the early Church Fathers such as Irenaeus, Cyprian and Ephraim The Syrian. Many Fundamentalist conclude that Darby merely rediscovered an ancient teaching that fell by the wayside rather than designing and inventing this theology himself.

    Did the Early Church Father’s teach a concept such as the rapture (without using that name of course) or did the concept originate with Darby?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 28, 2016

      Yes, virtually every Christian group of every persuasion insists that its views are rooted in the NT and earliest Christian thinking. But no, the idea of the rapture was not promoted by the early church fathers.

  6. Avatar
    ask21771  September 26, 2016

    Is it possible that this who said they saw Jesus was after death were just lying?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 28, 2016

      I can’t see why it would be technically *im*possible!

      • Avatar
        ask21771  September 28, 2016

        I haut don’t se how Peter Paul and Mary can hallucinate for no reason

  7. Avatar
    tony10000  September 26, 2016

    Of course, this is a complicated subject since faith and detailed historical analysis are two different things and cannot always be perfectly reconciled. I quote this portion of the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy:

    “The truthfulness of Scripture is not negated by the appearance in it of irregularities of grammar or spelling, phenomenal descriptions of nature, reports of false statements (e.g., the lies of Satan), or seeming discrepancies between one passage and another. It is not right to set the so-called “phenomena” of Scripture against the teaching of Scripture about itself. Apparent inconsistencies should not be ignored. Solution of them, where this can be convincingly achieved, will encourage our faith, and where for the present no convincing solution is at hand we shall significantly honor God by trusting His assurance that His Word is true, despite these appearances, and by maintaining our confidence that one day they will be seen to have been illusions.”

    ICBI, Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, n.d.

    • Avatar
      SidDhartha1953  October 2, 2016

      Something the inerrantists don’t seem to get is that anything in scripture that they take to be a claim about scripture was written before the scripture (i.e. OT&NT — 66 or 70+ documents, according to denominational affiliation) they seek to defend existed. Bishop N.T. Wright best expressed the wrong-headedness of the fundamentalist view, in light of Christian tradition. He pointed out that orthodox Christianity teaches that Christ, not any body of writings, is the word of God. I don’t believe either claim, but people who do believe either should try to understand where it comes from in the history of Christianity.

  8. TWood
    TWood  September 27, 2016

    I’m with you on this completely… I’m a Christian still, but I really appreciate your taking the time to answer my many questions. I’ve been able to learn a lot by running things by you. I just donated $50 to your blog. It’s a bit tight for me now, but if my podcast starts doing well I’ll be glad to give more as it grows. I also told some others to join, but we’ll see if they follow through.

    Also! My invite for you to come on my podcast stands. I can probably round up $500 for your blog if you agree to come on the podcast for like 20 minutes or whatever ($500 for 20 mins is all I can swing). If that’s not enough cash to justify your time, I fully understand.

    Hopefully one day I’ll be able to convince you it’d be a good place to promote your blog… that is to say, on a Christian podcast who hates fundamentalism! (because I used to be a fundie pastor for five years).

    It’d be fun to have you on and to show the fundies that you’re not the devil trying to destroy their faith…. these fundies need to come to terms with the facts… I’ve convinced some… but having you on would be a big step up I think. Anyway, I’ll ask from time to time… I know you said you’d think about it… I come from a sales background where follow up is the key to success. Consider this a follow up and a request for what terms would be needed for you to agree to a short call in to my podcast?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 28, 2016

      Many thanks for the donation!!

    • Avatar
      TGeiger  October 3, 2017

      Would you be willing to point me to your podcast? I am reading Dr. Ehrman’s books and trying to understand a non-fundamentalist viewpoint. I have found inconsistencies in the Bible that I could not reconcile, but I am also not a Biblical scholar nor a member of clergy. I would really be interested in hearing what is presented in your podcast.

  9. Avatar
    chrispope  September 27, 2016

    Bart, a question, please.
    Given that historical context is so important in reviewing the historicity of the gospels and early xtian writings, and given that the jewish revolt and sack of Jerusalem was so proximate to early xtian writings, can you say something about how those historical events may have or did influence those writings?
    (I have always assumed, eg, that for the spread of xianity it was important to show that Jesus was executed not as an enemy of the empire but as a jewish heretic/blasphemer.)
    Apologies if you’ve covered this elsewhere and I’ve missed it.

    • Bart
      Bart  September 28, 2016

      I’m probably in the minority of people who aren’t convinced that the Jewish war contributed a *lot* to any of the views of the NT authors… I’m open to the idea, but I just have never seen it.

  10. Avatar
    godspell  September 27, 2016

    A long time ago, I read a biography of Teresa of Avila, “Theresa: A Woman” by Victoria Lincoln, who was an excellent historian, and clearly not a believer in any conventional sense of the term. She did exhaustive research into the Spanish saint’s life, and reached many conclusions that a Catholic who prayed to her (as many do, to this day) would find upsetting. But her respect for this remarkable woman was no less deep and profound, and I’ve never forgotten her conclusion.

    See, Teresa became a saint because her body was exhumed in the process of renovating the church she was buried in–she was entombed in a wall. People had mainly forgotten all the good work she’d done in life. But then her body was found to be in a ‘miraculous’ state of preservation. Probably because of the way she’d been buried. But to people then, it seemed like a miracle. And that began the process of reevaluating her life, and people started reporting miracles (as tends to happen, it’s a self-confirming process), and canonization finally occurred.

    And Lincoln closed her very long book by saying she would like to believe that God wanted Teresa to be remembered, and used the world as it was then so that her courage, her conviction, and yes, her sanctity, could someday be seen for what they really were (paraphrasing, I don’t have the book handy).

    And I dare any historian ever born to prove God didn’t do exactly that.

    True faith can never be disproven by knowledge, because they inhabit separate realms. And you can be faithful to both without any contradiction.

  11. Avatar
    Hume  September 27, 2016


    Why are all the gods (that we do not have to name) born around the 25th of December? It is because of the Winter Solstice. Where the light begins to defeat the dark, and days slowly get longer.

    • Bart
      Bart  September 28, 2016

      I’m not sure they were all born then, were they? What are you thinking? It does appear that some of the ones connected with the Sun, as the Sun God (e.g., Mithras), were. But others?

      • Avatar
        Hume  October 2, 2016

        Maybe you’re right that they are not all connected to the Sun. But why the 25th of December? Tammuz, Dionysus, and Adonis to name a few.

        • Bart
          Bart  October 4, 2016

          Why do you think those three were born on December 25? If you’ve read someone who says so, what is their evidence?

          • Avatar
            Hume  October 6, 2016

            I’ve looked for evidence for Tammuz and Nimrod being born on December 25th over these last two days (tablets, primary source writings, etc.), and I cannot find any. Nimrod and Tammuz are both in the Bible. To your knowledge are they connected to the 25th of December or Easter in any way?

          • Bart
            Bart  October 8, 2016

            No, I”m afraid not. I’m afraid you’re not going to find evidence!

  12. Avatar
    clipper9422@yahoo.com  September 27, 2016

    Would it be correct to say that, most of the time, scholars can say, based on evidence, that it’s probable that something in a gospel did actually happen but that they are usually “agnostic” about saying things in a gospel probably did not not actually happen? In other words it’s more like suspending judgement for lack of evidence than denial that something did happen?

    So another question would be what kind of evidence would it take to conclude that something in a gospel didn’t actually happen – as opposed to not having evidence that it did?

    (I know these questions cry out for examples but all I can think of are miracles which I know have different or additional problems.)

    • Bart
      Bart  September 28, 2016

      My sense is that most critical scholars are as skeptical about the actions of Jesus as reported as the sayings — each one has to be evaluated based on rigorous historical criteria.

  13. Avatar
    DavidBeaman  November 10, 2016

    I have read several books that you wrote and have learned from them. I am now reading Jesus, Interrupted and I think it will be my favorite book. As a bishop who has founded a non-profit that has one of its goals to reconcile what I learned in seminary, which is the same as what you teach (except you teach it better), with my faith. You see, I believe that faith must have a basis in as close to the facts we can discern about the historical Jesus and about the beliefs of the people who heard him face-to-face had. Christian faith that does not have such basis, in my opinion, is simply wishful thinking and a product of 1700 years (more or less) of brainwashing begun by the Catholic Church and passing on to the Protestant Church to the point where at least some, maybe the majority, of their clergy started to believe it.

    • SBrudney091941
      SBrudney091941  November 10, 2016

      If I were to have a faith “as close to the facts we can discern about the historical Jesus and about the beliefs of the people who heard him face-to-face,” I’d be Jewish.

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