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Fresh Air – Christianity’s Path From ‘Forbidden’ To A ‘Triumph’

On March 20, 2018 I had an interview with Terry Gross for her NPR radio program Fresh Air, about my book The Triumph of Christianity: How A Forbidden Religion Swept the World.   I believe this is the seventh time I’ve done her program (the first one was for my book Lost Christianities, maybe fifteen years ago).  I thought way back then, and I still think now, that she’s the best interviewer on the planet.

The show runs for about 45 minutes, but we talked for twice that long . On the upside, that means her editors leave out some of the more idiotic things I say.   Enjoy!

Transcript of this program: https://www.npr.org/templates/transcript/transcript.php?storyId=595161200

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  1. Avatar
    ardeare  April 26, 2018

    Concerning the afterlife; do you differentiate between what happens immediately after death with what happens at the end of ages (e.g humanity?). It may seem like an odd question but I’ve not yet come to grips as to whether you believe the afterlife would have meant what happens immediately after death, or at the very end when souls are awakened by the coming of the “Son of Man,” or something else.

  2. Avatar
    rivercrowman  April 27, 2018

    Bart, I now have two copies of your newest book “The Triumph of Christianity.” I hesitate to ruin either one of them (as a study copy) with a highlighter, as these books are almost like sacred scripture to me! On page 135 you note “most churches met in private homes and in outdoor areas such as cemeteries.” Cemeteries? What was going on there? Were they worshiping in the near proximity (within ear-shot) of deceased ancestors (Christian or pagan)? Did the congregations own their own cemetery land? Love to hear your thoughts.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 29, 2018

      It was apparently because cemeteries were large open and public spaces — perfect for a gathering of people too large to fit in a private home.

  3. Avatar
    Wilusa  April 27, 2018

    So glad you were able to post this for us here! It’s a great interview. And Terry Gross has a wonderful speaking voice, perfect for an interviewer.

    I’ll doubtless be back later, when I’ve had time to think about it.

  4. Avatar
    Tobit  April 27, 2018

    When you say pagan converts were impressed by miracles, do you mean reports of miracles as in the Gospels and Acts, or miracles they personally saw Christian preachers perform? If the latter, what set the Christians apart from other ancient miracle-workers and magicians like Simon Magus?

  5. Avatar
    Wilusa  April 27, 2018

    I tend to believe Christianity was, on balance, a bad thing for the world. Because while it undoubtedly enriches many people’s lives, it also undoubtedly *blights* many people’s lives. (I was in the latter category.) I don’t see how pagan religions could have blighted anyone’s life, because they demanded so little!

    And I admit I don’t give a hoot about the arts-and-culture aspects of the question.

    But I do care about the invention of the printing press (to meet a need for Bibles?), because I assume other, later inventions – say, in science – were dependent on *something’s* having brought about a better way of circulating ideas.

    And in one sense, I’m glad I was raised Catholic. Why? Because a priest gave my high school class a course in “Apologetics” – in which he attempted to prove the truth of Catholicism by starting with no assumptions, *first* proving the existence of “God,” and going on from there. A few years later, while not remembering his arguments, I tried using his methodology. And I found that I *couldn’t* be convinced of the existence of “God.” Realizing that, in my mid-twenties, saved me a lot of misery down the road.

    But it was still as hard for me to “come out” as an agnostic, to my beloved mother, as it was for some other young people to “come out” as gay.

  6. Avatar
    rburos  April 28, 2018

    Excellent interview. Question on miracles–you write about Acts and early Church Fathers explaining that people converted because of miracles. Sanders writes that ancient people believed in miracles so they wouldn’t have been special (compared to other miracle workers). He also writes that the people in the healing and exorcism stories believed for the wrong reasons, meaning only to get something they wanted/needed but that this wasn’t the true message. He even writes that the miracles didn’t convince anybody, especially the disciples, who Jesus *really* was. Only the resurrection finally convinced the disciples.

    I have many friends, however, who absolutely believe the miracles happened (and that nobody else did miracles), and that these miracles continue today. So I see both points, and wonder are my friends doing both what you and Mr Sanders are saying? Is there daylight between the two of you on this, or am I misreading?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 29, 2018

      I don’t think Sanders means they wouldn’t be special. He means that they would have been common. They happened all the time. The question was which miracle worker could to the better ones.

  7. Avatar
    Homer  April 28, 2018

    Please fact check the statement “every 7 seconds a child dies of starvation.” It has been used as a marketing point by several nonprofits – 5 sec, or 7 sec, or 10 sec, or 20 sec. Probably more accurate is a child dies every ? seconds due to various med problems caused by malnutrition (starvation?), or of which malnutrition is a contributing factor. Whichever statement is more factual, it is horrendous! Certainly makes one question God, and the response (or lack of) by humankind.

  8. Liam Foley
    Liam Foley  April 28, 2018

    I really enjoyed this interview. Very well done. When you speak about conversion in the early days of Christianity and how converts stopped worshipping other gods in favor of the Christian God, I can see how that is changing because of Liberal Christianity. Even when I labeled myself a Liberal Christian I still read about other faiths, mainly Eastern Religions, and incorporated them into my schema of faith. I actually have many friends that are Liberal Christian ministers that also have this eclectic approach to faith, encorporating aspects of other faiths under an umbrella of Christianity.

    I suspect even Fundamentalist Christians do this to some degree because we live in a culture where other faiths and philosophies have seeped into our broader culture influencing religions thoughts and practices.

    My question: do you see today, from your time as a Liberal Christian, a return to those old days of paganism where in our pluralistic society that for many individuals it is now more accepted to believe and practice Christianity along with other faiths?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 29, 2018

      Interesting idea. Maybe that’s why liberal Christianity is losing its appeal to so many people? It’s not emphasizing the certitude of its exclusive truth claims?

      • Liam Foley
        Liam Foley  April 29, 2018

        Yes, in the Liberal Christianity of Today they see things more metaphorically and universally.

        Also, as they see the universality of truths in all religions many recognize that Christianity, as a religion, is simply the cultural based conduit, or vehicle, for those universal truths. These types of individuals are more interested in orthopraxy than orthodoxy. Of course I’m over generalizing because there are many Liberal Christians that do have more traditional and orthodox views. For those I’ve spoken about conversation to Christianity doesn’t necessarily mean to stop practicing other faiths.

        But I do understand what you’re saying. The majority of people seeking religious faith are looking for certitude and assurances which Liberal Christianity may not offer.

  9. Avatar
    Mhamed Errifi  April 28, 2018

    hello Bart

    I have question , but is unrelated to the post and if you dont mind to reply to my question . i have heard you saying in one of your debate that unlike in the gospel of john in the Synoptics gospels jesus is not portrayed as God. but how do you understand this verse in the gospel of mark

    Mark 14:62 “I am,” said Jesus. “And you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.”

    did jesus claim divinity ? if not then why you think he did not

    Many thanks

    • Bart
      Bart  April 29, 2018

      I’ve changed my view about this — I think the Synoptics do see Jesus as divine in *SOME* sense. See my book How Jesus Became God. As to Mark 14:62 — telling someone that they will see the cosmic judge of the earth is not blasphemous. Notice, Jesus doesn’t identify himself as the Son of Man.

      • Avatar
        twiskus  May 1, 2018

        Just for clarity, when you say you have changed your mind on this, are you saying you have changed your mind since writing HJBG/given debates on the topic? Or are you saying you changed your mind further in the past, which led to HJBG and the subsequent debates that followed? Also, would you agree still on the criterion of disimilarity that Jesus really said that, but wasn’t referring to himself, therefore, not claiming divinity for himself and that this was NOT something Christians would have said about him (not make it clear here that Jesus was the Son of Man)?

        • Bart
          Bart  May 2, 2018

          I mean I changed my mind while writing HJBG. Yes, I’m convinced (beyond any doubt!) that Jesus did not claim to be God or the son of man.

    • talmoore
      talmoore  April 30, 2018

      What it looks like to me — and, of course, this is just my layman’s view — is that the historical Jesus probably claimed to be taken by the Holy Spirit; that is to say, when he was baptized by John, the Holy Spirit came down from heaven and entered him (sort of like how it’s recounted in the gospel accounts). And since the Holy Spirit is, in some technical sense, a piece of God, then, one can say that a piece of the divine came to literally dwell within Jesus.

      None of this, incidentally, is counter to Jewish religion or philosophy. The idea that a spirit from God would enter a person is pretty much central to the notion of a prophet in general, both Jewish and gentile. Specifically, the ancients believed that the process of a god communicating to humanity via a prophet was that either the god or goddess, himself or herself, would enter the prophet, or that a spirit of said god or goddess (i.e. a daimon or demon) would literally enter the prophet, often times causing the prophet to behave differently — such as shaking or convulsing in ecstasy (cf. the Delphic Pythia).

      The god, in effect, comes to commandeer the prophet’s physical body and thus uses the prophet’s body to speak literal words through the prophet’s mouth. (Incidentally, the Semitic word for a prophet comes from the same root as to “bring into,” as in the prophet is bringing the divine spirit into him.)

      It’s probably from this original belief that Jesus was taken over by the Holy Spirit (which was the source of his powers to prophesy, to heal, to exorcise other demons, etc.) that the original followers of Jesus saw him, in some sense, divine (again, all within the acceptable bounds of contemporary Jewish thought). Over time, this notion of Jesus being partially divine appears to have evolved into Jesus becoming equated with God himself, making Jesus, somehow, 100% human and 100% God. In a way, one can think about as Jesus gradually becoming more than 100% of something — going from 50% man/50% Holy Spirit to 100% man/100% God.

      • Avatar
        mannix  May 1, 2018

        Is the idea of the Spirit of God entering a person used to support the claim of biblical inerrancy? IOW, Scriptures are NOT written by humans per se, but by a divine Spirit “possessing” the writers.

        • talmoore
          talmoore  May 2, 2018

          Yes, that’s what it means for scripture to be “inspired”. The “spirit” literally goes inside of the prophet (“in” + “spire”) and God, via the Spirit, speaks through the prophet. So when you hear Jews, Christians and Muslims saying scripture is “inspired,” this is what they mean — or at least, this is what they are supposed to mean. Therefore, God spoke the Torah through Moses. God spoke the Book of Isaiah through Isaiah. God spoke the teachings of Jesus through Jesus. God spoke the teachings of Paul through Paul. God spoke the Qur’an through Muhammad (but in the case of Muhammad, it was via the angel Gabriel, not the Holy Spirit). And so on.

  10. Avatar
    Tony  April 29, 2018

    I’m reading the Kindle edition of “Bart Ehrman Interpreted” by Robert M. Price.

    Here is Price under “Myths and Mysteries”, on a recent subject we exchanged comments on:

    “Was the resurrection of Jesus derived from the myths of the dying and rising Gods? Not bloody likely, saith Bart Ehrman, since there were no such myths at the time. Here is the clearest instance of the ex-evangelical Ehrman remaining loyal to the apologetics agenda of his mentor Bruce M. Metzger (and many others). But it is not Metzger whom Bart invokes. Instead, he refers us to the celebrated Jonathan Z. Smith, whose work, along with that of Mark S. Smith, Bart says, has settled the issue and put to rest the notion of dying and rising gods. But it hasn’t. Not by a long shot.”

    Price next describes Christian apologetic attempts to explain the mystery religions rising and dying features as coming from Christianity – and not the other way around.

    I must say that the book is a very dense read, but Price has two PhD’s on the subject, which, I suppose, allows him to wonder in the weeds a lot.

  11. Avatar
    HawksJ  May 3, 2018

    Slightly off-topic, but on-topic as it relates to podcasts:

    Your interview with Sam Harris released this week on his Waking Up podcast was fantastic! In my opinion, there is no better conversational interviewer on the planet than Sam (apologies to your favorite, Terry Gross), and you two hit on seemingly every relevant topic. In fact, I can’t think of s major point that you have made in your popular books that wasn’t covered; but it was all done so smoothly and concisely.

    Congratulations on getting on the show, fantastic performance, and I’m confident it will greatly benefit the blog and your charities!

  12. Avatar
    herculodge  May 6, 2018

    I liked the Fresh Air interview a lot, and I liked the Sam Harris one even more. A classic interview. I could hear the thoughtfulness, humility, and humanity in Professor Ehrman’s voice as he explained the pain of losing one’s faith.

  13. Avatar
    dizdarnelson  May 18, 2018

    I read something in K Armstrong’s The Bible: A Biography that really struck me. She suggests that the gospels wouldn’t have been written had the temple in Jerusalem not been destroyed. Makes me wonder—did the destruction have a place in the rise of Christianity?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 19, 2018

      I’ve never thought that the destruction of Jerusalem is what led to the writing of the Gospels. It was instead the need to explain who Jesus was and what he stood for in a generation after he had disappeared.

  14. Avatar
    GregAnderson  May 27, 2018

    Hey Dr. Ehrman, you started off your interview with, “And it occurred to me that in the ancient world when Christianity was taking over the religious scene, it was destroying the other religions in its wake.”

    And I thought, you know, polytheism makes a lot of sense, compared to monotheism. I’m an atheist, one who grew up with almost no religious instruction or indoctrination. When I grew old enough to really study and think about such things, I realized that many problems, notably the theodicy issue, were not at all problems within polytheism. Your book, and others, such as Tim Whitmarsh’s “Battling the Gods,” made me truly empathize with an ancient people whose natural world was (in some cases) violently threatened by a new, seemingly incomprehensible dogma.

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