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Fundamentalism and the Truth of the Bible

I have recently received a number of inquiries about why realizing there may be mistakes in the Bible might lead someone to become an agnostic.  Here is one that came a few days ago:

 

QUESTION:

I want to thank you for your extensive work in explaining … your journey from believing that the bible contained no errors to proving the bible is not inerrant and simply the work of human writers. What I would like to be explained is the necessary logic to go from believing that the bible is not inerrant or the “word of God” to believing there is no God.

 

RESPONSE

My view of the matter may seem odd to a lot of people, but it is nonetheless held by most critical scholars of the Bible and trained theologians.  What is the “necessary logic to go from believing that the bible is not inerrant … to believing there is no God?  There is no necessary logic at all.

I have never thought that …

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Becoming a Non-Fundamentalist Christian
Eyewitnesses and the Gospels: A Blast From the Past

65

Comments

  1. Avatar
    Michael Toon  May 15, 2017

    As you eloquently argue in Jesus Before The Gospels:

    “At the end of the day, I find it troubling that so many people think that history is the only thing that matters. For them, if something didn’t happen, it isn’t true, in any sense. Really? Do we actually live our lives that way? How can we? Do we really spend our lives finding meaning only in the brute facts of what happened before, and in nothing else? Think about the things that matter to us: our families, friends, work, hobbies, religion, philosophy, country, novels, poetry, music, good food, and good drink. Do we really think that the brute facts about the past are the only things that matter? To pick only one of these examples, one far removed from the New Testament, to make my point. Is literature unimportant because it does not deal with the brute facts of history? Is Dickens’s great novel David Copperfield of no value because its main character didn’t actually live? Well, that’s different, you say, because it’s fiction. Yes indeed, it’s fiction. And fiction can be life-transforming because it is full of meaning, even though it never happened. Or consider further: can historical discoveries undermine the power of great literature? Does the earth-shattering force of King Lear evaporate if it can be historically proved that someone other than Shakespeare wrote it? Does Dover Beach really fail to grip us with its powerful pathos if we learn that these were not actually the author’s thoughts the last time he was looking out over the English Channel? Literature speaks to us quite apart from the facts of history. So does music. So does sculpture. So do all the arts. The Gospels are not simply historical records about the past. They are also works of art.” New Testament historian, Bart Ehrman

    • Bart
      Bart  May 16, 2017

      Ah, yes, that was my favorite part of the book…

      • Avatar
        Michael Toon  May 17, 2017

        That whole book was an eloquent argument. And so was Forgery and Counterforgery (the academic version). Thank you for waking the general reader up to a wide range things about New Testament scholarship studies. The only sad part about it, I suppose, is you’ve decided write less books in the coming years.

        • Bart
          Bart  May 19, 2017

          I’m leaving open the idea of writing not just a trade book every two years (my current goal), but also a scholarly book on occasion. I have the beginnings of a new idea for the next one!

          • Avatar
            Michael Toon  May 19, 2017

            That’s great news here!

      • Avatar
        llamensdor  May 21, 2017

        When my novel, “Kane’s World” was first published in its British Commonwealth edition, reviewers in many newspapers (The London Times, Manchester Guardian, etc.) compared my work favorably to the work of Matthew Arnold. I was quite flattered, to say the least.

  2. Avatar
    godspell  May 15, 2017

    It’s very important to keep making this point, that believers and unbelievers so often miss. ‘The Bible’ is a collection of stories, written over a long long period of time, and faith would have existed if none of them had ever been written down, and faith could survive quite well if all copies vanished from the face of the earth (or if every single story was proven false.)

    What I think all people of good will should be fighting for in our time is the right for each individual, of any religion or none, to believe as he or she sees fit, regarding all matters that are not strictly established in fact. I believe faith is an integral part of the human experience, but faith is meaningless if not arrived at through one’s own personal experiences and struggles. Faith that is imposed–including faith in the nonexistence of any deity at all–is empty and worthless. And when we learn to respect each person’s insights about the universe–without feeling we have to swallow any of them whole–is when we’ll have finally grown up as a species.

    I’m not holding my breath, you understand. But that’s what I’m shooting for. 🙂

  3. Avatar
    mcsimon3  May 15, 2017

    I understand the above discussion and it makes complete sense. However, ( don’t you love however?” from what you’ve said, all seminaries in the western world, except very conservative evangelical ones, teach and believe that Jesus was an apocalyptic preacher who believed that the end of the world as he envisioned it, was to come in his lifetime or at least in the lifetime of his disciples. In this, he was obviously wrong.
    I attended a Catholic school for 8 years and we were taught the God was all every imaginable virtue that we could imagine, the Platonic vision of the perfect whatever, the perfect oak tree, the perfect statue, etc..
    So here’s my question. If God is all knowing, then how could Jesus be wrong, the world didnt come to an end during the lifetime of his disciples, and still be God? And don’t give me that what is a year to God so that the end of the world could come in a million years and it would still be just the blink of an eye to God nonsense. That’s not what Jesus said: he said during the lifetime of his disciples which was a clearly defined and limited period, like no more than 60-70 years or so.
    So if God is perfectly knowledgeable, and Jesus was mistaken, then that means Jesus was not God and to me, that is the end of Christianity. If Jesus isn’t god because he was in error, how do people who believe that he was an apocalyptic preacher justify their belief in Jesus and Christianity?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 16, 2017

      It doesn’t necessarily mean that. Theologians for many, many centuries have maintained that when the divine Christ became human he abandoned his divine perogatives and was no longer all-powerful or all-knowing. so he could in fact make mistakes.

      • Avatar
        jhague  May 16, 2017

        Maybe Theologians believe that but none of the ministers or Christians I know believe that. They all believe in Jesus the way that the gospel of John portrays him. That he is all knowing and does not make mistakes. My guess is that most of them would say that since the world as it was known did not end, it is because God’s (and Jesus’) time for it to end has not yet come. It doesn’t matter that some people in the first century were supposed to live to see it happen.

      • Avatar
        PeteSammataro  May 16, 2017

        Prof Ehrman,
        I’d like to followup on “mcsimon3” above. I also went to eight years of Catholic school, where we learned that Jesus and God the Father were one in the same. Jesus pre-existed the creation, Jesus was God himself on earth, and Jesus was a perfect human being. He turned water into wine, calmed the seas, healed the sick, raised the dead and forgave sins.

        This view doesn’t seem to leave room for the theological belief that Jesus abandoned his divine prerogatives. To put it another way, the theological view you mentioned seems like an effort to have one’s cake and it it too. Jesus is a human and, therefore, fallible when it’s convenient. Yet, he’s a divine being when that’s convenient.

      • Avatar
        llamensdor  May 21, 2017

        I don’t believe that Jesus was an apocalyptic preacher in the sense that he thought the end of the world was imminent. My opinion is that Jesus understood that his people were suffering greatly under brutal Roman rule, and he feared that they soon would rise up in armed rebellion — and that would indeed be the apocalypse for Israel–for they could not possibly succeed against the overwhelming military might of the Roman Empire. He conceived his role as to do what he could to avoid this catastrophe. And he sacrificed himself in this cause, as I explain in my novel, “The Murdered Messiah.” Perhaps he succeeded in delaying the inevitable for 30-40 years, but the Jews did rise up and in 70 C.E., Jerusalem burned and the Temple was destroyed. Jesus was a martyr, but not for “our sins.” Rather to save his people. Unfortunately, that is not how the story has been told.

  4. talmoore
    talmoore  May 15, 2017

    But there’s one thing I’m sure we can all agree on: only Methodists are true Christians.

    • Avatar
      gwayersdds  May 16, 2017

      You are absolutely right!!!

    • Avatar
      mere.perspective  April 3, 2018

      And where is that found in the Bible?

  5. Avatar
    jhague  May 15, 2017

    I agree with your comments. My thought is that for some people what can cause them to stop believing in a deity is the realization that all forms of religion were man-made. I grew up in a very conservative church with some members being fundamentalists. We were told from the pulpit to not read anything but the Bible. If anyone had questions, they needed to ask the minister or one of the elders. Years later, we were told we could read books that were written by ministers/elders from the same brand and sect of church. There was much caution about reading any books from outside of the group. Then I began reading books from ministers from my church brand who were more open-minded. These authors looked into questions that were not normally allowed to be asked. This is what started opening my way of thinking toward the Bible and God. Finally, when I started reading whatever I wanted, I found that most Christian book authors were not that much different from my own church that I attended. I then found some of these authors to be more open-minded. The next phase was to begin reading material from scholars such as you…a big no no in any Christian church! I would say the final phase was to read from authors that discuss the history and development of humans. My understanding is that through the development of humans also came the development of all the other parts of our lives including religion and the idea that there is a deity who is responsible for everything and who might be willing to punish people who do not follow the rules…which were made by humans! So if the Bible is man-made, the “rules” to be followed are man-made and the idea of an all knowing and powerful deity is man-made, the next step is probably being an agnostic.
    Have you heard stories such as this of how people journeyed from Christianity to being agnostic?

  6. Avatar
    Eskil  May 15, 2017

    I’m concocting a theology where the Bible is indeed the inspired word of God but because God is ignorant and illogical by nature the Bible is full of errors ;-D

  7. Avatar
    rburos  May 15, 2017

    Outstanding

  8. Avatar
    RevJoni  May 15, 2017

    hmmm, that was just a teaser.

  9. Avatar
    nichael  May 15, 2017

    Well said. But if I may, I’d like to add a footnote.

    The bottom line is that these, at their core, are not historical documents. That is not where any value they might have lies.

    As noted, the main error made by strict Christian fundamentalists is not that they are applying the *wrong* literalistic reading to the Bible, but that are attempting to read it in a literal way, at all.

    However, it is important to bear in mind that the converse is equally true. That is, it is just as invalid –and for exactly the same reason– to argue that historical inaccuracies prove that there can be no value or meaning to the texts. These, as Dr Ehrman indicates, are distinct questions.

    To repeat the point above, these are not primarily historical documents. And to take the position of the literalists (either the “pro-Biblcial literalists” like Jerry Fawell, or the “anti-Biblical literalists” like Richard Dawkins, the Mythicists or Bill Maher and his “talking snake”) is to rather badly miss the point.

  10. Avatar
    screwtape  May 15, 2017

    I had an otherwise intelligent person tell me recently that the tree of knowledge of good and evil represented human reason. If that is your mindset then maybe there is some validity to the slippery slope argument made by fundamentalists. I wonder if there are any studies showing that fundamentalists are more likely to abandon the faith than other Christians. Wouldn’t surprise me at all.

  11. Avatar
    nichael  May 15, 2017

    WIth regard to the underlying issue here (i.e. the distinction between religion/ethics/spirituality and historicity/factuality/science and how they do or do not overlap and/or conflict) I’d like to suggest a book by the evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould “Rock of Ages”?

    In brief, Gould argues for what he calls “Non-Overlapping Magisteria”; i.e. the notion that “science/history” and “religion” are two distinct, but ultimately equally valuable aspects of human life. And should, at their base, offer no reason for conflict.

    Whether or not you accept all of his arguments, the book offers much useful and clear thought on this topic, as one would expect from Gould.

  12. Avatar
    Boltonian  May 15, 2017

    Surely a historical reading of the Bible excludes the possibility of the existence of a Christian god. For example, if history shows that the virgin birth is highly unlikely, that Jesus did not claim to be the son of God, that he was not resurrected and ascended to heaven, that the miracles did not occur etc, then surely one cannot claim to be a Christian. Similarly, I imagine, if one rejects the notion of Moses being the author of the Torah, and that the Law is man-made and confusing and contradictory, and that the histories are largely legend and folk tales, and that the OT was written many, sometimes hundreds of years after the events they portray, etc, one cannot call oneself a religious Jew. Likewise, if one concludes that Allah is not the author of the Koran nor Mohammed the prophet of Allah, one cannot be a Muslim. Given what we know of the world we know that God cannot be all three of these: Omniscient; Omnipotent; and Benevolent, as you have articulated many times in your books and on this blog but that is exactly what the ‘Abrahamic religions,’ do believe.

    None of this precludes the existence of a god of some sort, just not the one defined by these religions. So, if not one of these then what exactly is His nature? This, it seems to me, is an evidence-free area, and can only exist as an unsupported belief: ‘I think, on balance, a creative power greater than us is likely (Deism, Theism etc), unlikely (Atheism) or we simply cannot say (Agnosticism).’

    • Avatar
      godspell  May 16, 2017

      Your arguments are tendentious, your reasoning is circular. And don’t call me Shirley. 😉

  13. Avatar
    mjt  May 15, 2017

    If there are factual errors in the bible–eg Abiathar wasn’t the high priest when Mark claimed–that certainly isn’t sufficient to disprove Christianity. But what about theological errors? For example, if Gen 18:20&21 really describes a god who doesn’t yet know what’s going on in Sodom and Gomorrah, that’s a theological error about omniscience. Shouldn’t errors like this be sufficient to disprove Christianity?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 16, 2017

      No, I don’t see why. There’s no connection between whether God really destroyed Sodom and whether Jesus died for the sins of the world.

  14. Avatar
    Alfred  May 15, 2017

    Another way to maintain theism in the face of biblical errancy is to conclude that there is indeed a God who divinely inspires scripture but that s/he is not very good at it, muddles things up and does not check his/her work.

  15. Avatar
    Salvador Perez  May 15, 2017

    Dr Ehrman,
    As far as I understand, Paul is a convert who preaches his own understanding of the gospel. If I am correct, and we have no other writings from the first members of Christianity my question is. How can we know what being a Christian required people to do and believe?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 16, 2017

      Part of the problem is that no one in New Testament times thought about “being a Christian” was something to do. The term Christian is not one they use. They were interested in getting people to believe in Jesus and to behave accordingly.

    • Avatar
      llamensdor  May 21, 2017

      Paul was not a convert and none of the “gospels” were written before him.

  16. Avatar
    gwayersdds  May 15, 2017

    I just finished reading “Jesus before the Gospels”. I always felt that there were many inconsistencies in the Bible which you explained extremely well but that did not “shake my faith”. As far as I am concerned the gospels could have been labeled A,B,C, and D. The gist of them and the ideas contained within them are not, to me, dependent upon apostolic authorship. The final chapter is a masterpiece of respect for those who do believe that what the Bible says is important. To me faith is not dependent on the inerrancy of the Bible because it is too easy to prove otherwise and many fundamentals, although very sincere in their beliefs are sincerely wrong. The Bible was not dictated by God in King James English. I truly appreciate the respect you have for those who have a different belief system than you have. I hope to meet you at the BAR seminars in Boston in November.

  17. Avatar
    hasankhan  May 15, 2017

    Just curious when it seems quite obvious from historical context and bible text as well that Jesus was prosecuted then why do Cristians believe that he died for their sins? He didn’t commit suicide for sure. How is it that he never said I’m dying for your sins but it’s still believed to be the case?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 16, 2017

      I think the idea is that he willingly submitted to his death as part of the divine plan.

  18. Avatar
    Jason  May 15, 2017

    For me at least some of the momentum in my transition from believer to atheist stemmed from what I felt to be attempts by fundies (or perhaps a general push throughout fundamentalism) to use the Bible as a matrix of personal control and unearned authority over myself and others. Did you experience any of that resentment in your transition?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 16, 2017

      A bit. Once you start moving away, some of those still in the camp seem to propel you.

  19. Avatar
    doug  May 15, 2017

    I once had a Fundamentalist friend who said to me, “If the Bible isn’t all true, throw it in the trash!”. Sad.

  20. Avatar
    Petter Häggholm  May 15, 2017

    I suppose the idea is that once you admit that the Bible contains errors, you can no longer rely on it as an authoritative source of knowledge…and once you give up on that, you open the possibility that any given claim in it may be wrong, if not corroborated by other sources or evidence. Just like every other document! But the Bible says a lot of things that aren’t attested by any other sources or evidence—so if you can’t reconcile Jesus riding into Jerusalem both on a donkey and on two donkeys, and casting out the Legion of demons in both Gerasa and Gadara, you admit that it’s at least theoretically possible that the Bible is wrong in the Garden of Eden story (since you can’t back it up with independent sources or evidence), and out goes (potentially) original sin and the need to be saved and… (I think the infamous Ken Ham has openly stated that something like this motivates his mission—but don’t quote me on that: I may be mixing up major league creationists. I know one of them said it…)

    Now, I think that literal inerrancy is a frankly crazy idea, while I think that ‘liberal’ religiosity is, although wrong, not crazy; and yet there is a certain logical consistency in that fundamentalist belief that I don’t see in more liberal religion. If you accept that the Bible is a human, fallible document, then what is your basis for believing any given ‘Bible-only’ proposition? It seems to me like many believers take the approach of thinking that the Bible is right until proven false—believe everything except the contradictory bits and those parts refuted by science and archæology and so forth (to varying degrees, depending on the believer) and (a major category) the bits they haven’t read—but this seems like a rather peculiar and ad hoc epistemology.

    Meanwhile, if you accept the doctrine of inerrancy, a lot of other stuff really does follow from that one assumption, so it is parsimonious and consistent, albeit at the cost of having to rationalise a lot of contradictions and counterfactuals. —And of course, as you pointed out in the post, in practice these people tend to add a lot of other stuff, like the whole trinitarian structure. I’m currently reading Alan F. Segal’s Life After Death: A History of the Afterlife in Western Religions, and he made the astute remark that it is an ironic fact that fundamentalists of all religions are at once the people who most fervently assert that they are returning to the simple truth of their scriptures and yet inevitably innovators of reactionary doctrines that weren’t there before.

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