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Finding Meaning in the Bible: More Responses to my Christmas Article

In the previous post I indicated some of the initial reactions, four years ago, to my Newsweek article on the Gospel stories about Christmas.  I received yet more reaction after that old post, and so posted again, dealing this time with people who thought I was too kindly disposed to anyone who found the stories meaningful.  Here is what I said at the time.  (I still stick by it, for what it’s worth!)



When the editor at Newsweek ask me if I would be willing to write an article on the birth of Jesus, I was hesitant and wrote him back asking if he was sure he really wanted me to do it.  I told him that I seem to be incapable of writing anything that doesn’t stir up controversy.  It must be in my blood.  Still, he said that they knew about my work and were not afraid of controversy, and they did indeed want an article from me.

What’s interesting to me is that I’ve been getting it from all sides.  I don’t know why that should surprise me.  It seems to be the story of my life.   For years my agnostic and atheist readers were cheering me on from the sidelines as I talked about the problems posed by a critical study of the
New Testament: there are discrepancies and contradictions, the Gospels are not written by eyewitnesses, and the stories they contain were modified over time, and many of them were invented, in the oral traditions before anyone wrote them down.   Etc.  My “non-believer” readers were pleased that all this was coming out in a popular format for the general reader.

And then I wrote Did Jesus Exist?, arguing that there is no serious doubt for virtually any real scholar of antiquity (whether biblical scholar, classicist, historian) that Jesus of Nazareth really did live.  And many of my agnostic and atheist allies suddenly felt completely betrayed and began to attack me even more virulently than the conservative Christians had earlier done.

You can’t please all the people all the time, and sometimes you just never can please anyone.  But so it goes.

History is like that.  People line up on various sides, and if what you’re really interested in is uncovering the truth that history can convey (e.g., in an earnest attempt to do nothing other than reconstruct what actually happened in the past), you’re going to offend people, no matter what your views/reconstructions are.

And so too ….

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A Personal Transition
Is the New Testament Authentic? Readers’ Mailbag December 4, 2016



  1. Avatar
    godspell  December 5, 2016

    Okay, but not John Irving. He’s got this weird bear fetish that creeps me out. 😉

    • Bart
      Bart  December 7, 2016

      Ha! But Prayer for Owen Meanie is my favorite modern novel of all time!

      • Avatar
        turbopro  December 7, 2016

        If I may prof, my fav novel of all time is “Don Quixote de La Mancha”: what would yours be?

        My fav modern novel, “Hyperion” by Dan Simmons.

        • Bart
          Bart  December 8, 2016

          Top three: David Copperfield; Middlemarch; Anna Karanina

      • Avatar
        donkeyring  December 7, 2016

        Wow, yeah, I stumbled upon Owen Meany many years ago and it blew me away.

  2. Avatar
    drussell60  December 5, 2016

    Dr. Ehrman, I agree with your following statement, “I only have problems with the very conservative readers of the Bible who think that since it can be used to support sexism, racism, opposition to women, capitalist dominance, war, and whatever, it should be used in those ways. I am dead set against such views and the people who hold them.”

    Are there any liberal readers of the Bible with whom you have problems regarding their interpretations?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 7, 2016

      Oh sure, I disagree with lots and lots of liberal interpretations. Especially the ones that disagree with mine!

  3. Avatar
    jhague  December 5, 2016

    ” I do not object to them so long as they do not insist the Bible is infallible, internally consistent, and a perfect guide for what people should (must!) believe and how they should (must!) act, behave, and live in the current world.”

    Every Christian that I come in contact with believes what you state above. The Christians I come into contact with consider themselves open minded and progressive. They would likely not consider themselves fundamentalists. But the only thing they know about the Bible is what they hear from pastors. And that is that the Bible is infallible, perfect…etc. I have never personally met a Christian who doesn’t feel this way.

    • Bart
      Bart  December 7, 2016

      You live in an interesting environment then! None of the Christians I associate with think this at all.

      • Avatar
        Alfred  December 9, 2016

        You need to visit New Zealand!

      • Avatar
        jhague  December 12, 2016

        The Christians I associate with are involved with churches using the community model church. When I look at websites for community churches, they all share the same “conservative” what we believe items even though they think of themselves as open minded and progressive.

        Do you associate with any community church Christians or are your friends more involved with International Church of Christ, etc?

        • Bart
          Bart  December 12, 2016

          I’m not involved with any churches myself. My friends tend to be mainline denomnational — especially Episcopalian and Presbyterian.

  4. talmoore
    talmoore  December 5, 2016

    Did the great Kurukshetra War between the Pandavas and the Kauravas actually occur exactly as recounted in the Mahabharata?
    Probably not.
    Do most Hindus believe it did?
    Probably yes.
    Do I believe it did?
    Do I care one way or another?
    Not really.
    Is that how I feel about ALL religious stories?

  5. Avatar
    flshrP  December 5, 2016

    “You can’t please everybody, so you got to please yourself”. (R. Nelson, c. 1972). Words to live by IMHO.

  6. Avatar
    Stephen  December 5, 2016

    Prof Ehrman

    I don’t disagree with anything you say in this post but simply note that if the fundamentalists conflate history and theology they come by this point of view honestly since it goes back to the very foundations of the faith. It was the Apostle Paul who said that if the resurrection didn’t really happen then there was no point to their belief. It was Paul who thought that Adam was a real human being whose sin brought death into the world and who based his theological interpretation of Christ on Adam. And an atheist/skeptic who notes this point of view expressed so clearly in the foundational texts of the faith can surely be excused for assuming that the conflation of theology and history is a feature of the program and not a bug in the program.

  7. Avatar
    Hume  December 5, 2016

    I just received my copy of Drugery Divine in the mail! Any other books you would recommend? Please don’t say there are too many. Could you make a post with books you would recommend!


    Canadian Amateur History Nerd Enthusiast

    • Bart
      Bart  December 7, 2016

      Yup, I’m happy to recommend books about things I know anything about. It just depends what you’re interested in!

  8. Avatar
    twiskus  December 5, 2016

    In reference to Luke’s census (sorry if I am beating a dead horse), you had mentioned in a Great Courses lecture that Luke is the only place we have “documentation” of such a census. I have heard that Josephus refers to this Luke census as well. Is he referring BACK to it in Luke, or is he referring to it independent of Luke’s reference?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 7, 2016

      No, Josephus does not mention any census of the entire Roman world when Augustus was Caesar. There are references to local, small-time censuses though.

      • Avatar
        twiskus  December 7, 2016

        Thanks for the clarification!

      • Avatar
        Rogers  December 15, 2016

        been reading SPQR by Mary Beard and it appears that a Roman census was a development very early on in the formation of the Roman republic. What they called tribes (no ethnicity or clan implication of the usage here) were pretty much what our legislative districts are. They used a cenus to in conjunction to these. (Our form of government looks to have borrowed a great deal from the Roman republic.)

        • Bart
          Bart  December 16, 2016

          yes, what we don’t know of is anything like what Luke indicates: a worldwide census under Augustus.

  9. Avatar
    dragonfly  December 5, 2016

    Capitalist dominance? I haven’t noticed that one before. Where do you find that concept?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 7, 2016

      In a great deal of conservative fundamentalist preaching in America, that sees capitalism as the God-given economic view.

    • talmoore
      talmoore  December 7, 2016


      By the way, anyone who can read Luke as the infallible word of God and still come away as a hardcore capitalist is a very, very confused person.

      • Avatar
        dragonfly  December 8, 2016

        Yeah, I kinda think that about all the gospels, also Paul’s letters. That’s why I was asking what part of the bible is used to promote capitalism.

        America looks like a strange planet from here, with peculiar politics. It looks like to do well in politics you have to say you’re Christian. You can be an egotistical, power-crazed sociopath bent on world domination, but if you say you’re Christian you could become president. Down here we’ve even had an atheist woman as prime minister. Nothing changes though, we still have two parties arguing over whether we should have half a dozen eggplants or six aubergines.

        • Bart
          Bart  December 8, 2016

          Yes, that’s a problem in my split (American-British) household. On the upside I don’t like eggplant but my wife loves aubergine….

  10. Avatar
    clipper9422@yahoo.com  December 5, 2016

    “[T]he story of the Christ-child and his appearance in the world can be founded not on what really did happen, but on what really does happen, in the lives of those who believe that stories such as these can convey a greater truth.”

    “There are indeed lots of thoughtful believers (many of my best friends) who agree with me on just about *everything* I think about the Bible (full of contradictions, historically inaccurate, filled with time-bound views that no longer make sense or work in our modern world, etc) but who nonetheless find meaning in the Bible, when interpreted in an enlightened (and even Post-Enlightened) way.”

    I agree with both statements. I also think the stories are much richer and more meaningful when believers understand them in this way. Overemphasis on literal truth, divine commands, and moral imperatives can get petty sterile.

    However, how can people be thoughtful Christians without believing that these stories point to or provide some kind of evidence for some kind of benign divine transcendence that goes beyond the natural world that science describes? Ethics is an extremely important part of Christianity but if it isn’t also making factual claims about the benevolent nature of ultimate reality, it seems like these Christians have basically given up on religion. I still recall a book (“The Jesus Myth” by Catholic priest Andrew Greeley) I read 40 years ago that claimed Jesus’s basic message was that the universe is ultimately friendly. Unfortunately, the vast majority of the evidence indicates that the universe is indifferent to us at best and often positively hostile – though lots of good things are also still possible.

    • Bart
      Bart  December 7, 2016

      Theological discourse can be very sophisticated and in that form is rarely literalistic in its readings of scripture.

  11. Avatar
    clipper9422@yahoo.com  December 5, 2016

    I don’t mean this mockingly or facetiously but what you’re saying sounds similar to the approach that people sometimes take to Santa Claus. “Is there a Santa Claus?” Not literally but many stories about him are told in an attempt to understand the spirit of Christmas. Of course Jesus did exist even if a lot of the stories about him are not literally true. But maybe there were one or more actual prototypes for Santa Claus too.

    • Avatar
      VirtualAlex  December 16, 2016

      St Nicholas, Bishop of Myra (270-343)?

  12. Avatar
    HawksJ  December 5, 2016

    ” But for those with a broader vision, a more generous appreciation of literature, and a fuller sense of theological meaning, the story of the Christ-child and his appearance in the world can be founded not on what really did happen, but on what really does happen, in the lives of those who believe that stories such as these can convey a greater truth.

    It’s that last sentence that was seen as problematic. ”

    I too am an ‘agnostic atheist’, but I thought it was one of the best sentences you’ve ever written.

  13. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  December 6, 2016


  14. Avatar
    trudy  December 6, 2016

    Thank you so much, Bart, for consistently teaching and enlightening me (and hopefully many, many more). Every time I read your blogs and books, I get more clarification, and therefore more understanding … exceedingly helpful!

  15. Avatar
    ddecker54  December 6, 2016

    Well said, Bart!! We will always have the self-righteous orthodox (or, as you describe them, the “my-doxy”) who for the most part cannot explain WHY they believe what they do. In fact, I doubt if they ever give any thought as to why they believe in the Jewish myth. But we, the agnostic-atheists need to be cognizant of the fact that, if we scorn and condemn those folks for their “beliefs”, we then come very close to falling into that same trap.

  16. Avatar
    Rogers  December 6, 2016

    Bart, yours seems like a kind of special (made up) definition of atheism. Gee, by that definition I’d be an atheist too, but I’d consider myself not at all as such. Hmm. You’ve nuanced a definition of atheism in a peculiar way.

    I suppose ancient Gnostics and Marcion wouldn’t qualify by that definition, though, because they at least held Yahweh in some sort of demiurge status, as opposed to being relegated to complete non-existence.

    • Bart
      Bart  December 7, 2016

      Atheism literally means “Without theism.” I don’t think my view is particularly idiosyncratic. I just take that to mean “without belief in a divine being.” “Agnosticism” means “without gnosis” — that is, “without knowledge.” I take it to mean “without knowing if there is divine being”

    • talmoore
      talmoore  December 7, 2016

      If you want to know what “atheism” means, then merely ask a self-proclaimed atheist (such as myself). They’ll tell you. It means “I don’t believe there is a God”. (Notice it’s not: “I believe there is no God”. It’s not a belief. It’s a lack of belief.)

      • Avatar
        Pattycake1974  December 9, 2016

        How far are you into writing your novel?

        • talmoore
          talmoore  December 10, 2016

          Not very. I’ve written a prologue to establish tone and style. I have a tentative six page outline of the entire novel. I have almost 200 pages of notes accumulated over the years to comb through. I’m still reading a few books for research. And I’ve started a spreadsheet of what I’ve concluded are Jesus’ actual words (roughly) and actual historical events.

          • Avatar
            Pattycake1974  December 13, 2016

            Good luck. I wish you success!

      • SBrudney091941
        SBrudney091941  December 10, 2016

        I lack belief as you do but, I’m sorry to say, that I’ve met and read and seen on TV all too many self-proclaimed atheists who DO appear to define it as “belief that there is no god.” They seem to have a belligerent streak in them and sometimes blame religion for all the woes of the world and then confuse the “psychosis” of religion with the non-existence of God.

        • talmoore
          talmoore  December 12, 2016

          Christopher Hitchens used to make the distinction between Atheism vs Anti-theism, a passive lack of belief in God vs an active belief there is no God, respectively. Hitchens accepted the label of anti-theist with alacrity. I, for one, don’t. I’m an atheist, not an anti-theist.

          • SBrudney091941
            SBrudney091941  December 14, 2016

            Me too.

  17. Avatar
    rivercrowman  December 6, 2016

    Bart, consider here or perhaps for the mailbag please. If my memory serves me, you (as a graduate student?) were involved in the development of the NRSV Bible version in 1989. Describe your work please, its duration, coworkers, history of the project, and were there any striking revisions in your opinion to the (New Testament) RSV version? Thanks!

    • Bart
      Bart  December 7, 2016

      Ah, good idea. (I had a very minor role as a graduate research assistant grunt for the commmittee actually doing the translating)

  18. Avatar
    Wilusa  December 6, 2016

    Sort of OT: I got to thinking that in light of Jesus’s earliest followers *not* having referred to him as the King of the Jews, it’s surprising that so many beloved Christmas carols *do* refer to him as some kind of king.

    Hark the Herald Angels Sing, The First Noel, O Come all ye Faithful (“born the King of angels”), What Child is This, Joy to the World, We Three Kings of Orient Are, I Wonder as I Wander (he’d *been* some kind of king, and given it up to incarnate and suffer as a human).

    The only ones I can think of in which he isn’t called a king are O Little Town of Bethlehem, Silent Night, Away in a Manger, and O Holy Night. And some of them may include it in stanzas I don’t know.

    I actually love most of those carols – as music, and as poetry. But I don’t believe modern Americans, if they really thought about it, would want Jesus to be “king forever, ceasing never, over us all to reign”! They’d prefer to imagine him as, maybe, the “Good Shepherd.”

  19. Avatar
    Wilusa  December 6, 2016

    But it’s one thing to say, “I do NOT – I really do not – object to people who are believers who find meaning and comfort in Scripture,” and quite another to say, “But for those with a broader vision, a more generous appreciation of literature, and a fuller sense of theological meaning, the story of the Christ-child and his appearance in the world can be founded not on what really did happen, but on what really does happen, in the lives of those who believe that stories such as these can convey a greater truth.”

    Yes, you are saying “the lives of *those who believe* that stories such as these can convey a greater truth.” (My italics, though, not yours.)

    But before that, you have at the very least *implied* that the sort of people you perceive as being “right” – in a somewhat snobbish way (“those with a broader vision, a more generous appreciation of literature, and a fuller sense of theological meaning”) – either *will* “find meaning and comfort in Scripture,” or will understand and appreciate others’ finding it, while those of us lacking a “broader vision” will not.

    • Bart
      Bart  December 7, 2016

      Well it is true that I think a deeper grasp of the literary truth conveyed by texts is superior to a literalistic reading of texts only for their historical meaning.

  20. Avatar
    dankoh  December 6, 2016

    Very well stated position! It seems to me that you are equally opposed, and rightly so, to those who argue that because the Bible can be used “to support sexism, racism, opposition to women, capitalist dominance, war, and whatever,” then it should not be used at all.

    The Jewish and the Christian bibles are nothing less – but also nothing more – than writings by human beings exploring the human condition and the world in which it exists, and tying to make sense of it.

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