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Fundamentalist Mistakes

When, three days ago, I posted my comments about the discovery of a two-page manuscript fragment of the Qur’an that, according to new reports, can be dated (technically, the parchment on which the text is written can be dated) to the lifetime of the prophet Mohammed or to a decade or so later, I had no idea that the post would be such a big deal.   The Facebook version of the post has had nearly245,000 hits. and counting.   Who would-a thought?

There are, as you might imagine, many many comments being made.   And it strikes me that many, many of these comments are simply wrong.   I won’t be taking them on one at a time.   I want simply to say something about a strain of comment that I’m getting (including in private email) from fundamentalists.

There are various ways that one can define fundamentalism.  (I often say, in jest, that the easiest definition is that a fundamentalist is:  “no fun, too much damn, and not enough mental.”)   I don’t need to go into a lot of detail here.  The people that I’m calling fundamentalists have two features in common (they have a lot more, but these are the two that I’m focusing on here):  they believe they have a literal, verbal, inerrant revelation from God, and they are very intent on convincing others to think so as well.  That is, they tend to be inerrantists and evangelists.   Strongly.

The world has seen a lot of fundamentalists during our times:  Jewish fundamentalists (who, OK, as a rule are far less evangelistic than the other kinds), Christian fundamentalists, and Muslim fundamentalists.  It’s the Christian and Muslim fundamentalists that I’m concerned with here, and it is because they both are making precisely the same mistake, in my judgment, about the significance of the transmission of their Scriptures that I want to say a few words.

Here is their mistake:  they both seem to think that if one of them has a set of Scriptures that has not been changed over the years, and the other has a set of Scriptures that scribes have altered, either by making mistakes or intentionally changing it, that makes the “unchanged Scripture” religion superior to the “changed Scripture” religion.

In my view that is completely bogus.

Let me stress that I am NOT – really, I AM NOT – taking sides in the religious controversy between Christians and Muslims.  It is true that I was certainly raised Christian myself, was a committed Christian for many years, was very much a fundamentalist for some of those years, and am a scholar of the Christian tradition.   Some Muslims may think that this makes me biased in favor of Christianity.  But equally, it makes some Christians think that it makes me biased *against*Christianity (their view is that I’m out to destroy the religion I’ve emerged from – as many notes written to me suggest, sometimes rather forcefully and, well, unpleasantly).

Whatever my personal biases, let me stress that in what I have to say here, I’m NOT taking either side.  I’m simply pointing out what seems to me to be a reality.   Having a set of Scriptures that has not changed in 1500 years does not make a religion, as a religion, superior to a religion that has a set of Scriptures that *has* changed in 1500 years.   The two phenomena (unchanged Scriptures; changed Scriptures) are irrelevant to the question of which religion, if either, is better.  (Again, I’m speaking as someone who is not inclined to *either* religion).

I’ll explain by making two points, which I make as a historical and literary scholar, not as a theologian with an axe to grind on either side.

The first is the one I already made but some people don’t seem to be hearing.   It is related to claims of fundamentalists about the truth of the Islam.  The second is a related point that I have not yet expressed but sense that I need to do so, strongly.  It is related to the claims of fundamentalists about the problems with Christianity.

First, to repeat myself:  Knowing the exact words of a text does not make the text true.   It simply means that you know what its author(s) wrote.   In other words, Muslim fundamentalists who are delighted that I have suggested that their Scriptures have not changed substantially over the years (frankly, I don’t know if they were changed at the outset of the movement or not – but I’ll say more about that in a late rost)  seem to think they have won some kind of debating point (or that I’m on the verge of converting).  That’s not true AT ALL.   The issue is irrelevant to the question of the truth claims of the religion.  And that means it is irrelevant to the question of which religion is superior.  If either.  Or neither.  If someone doesn’t “get” this point, let me know, and I’ll have to explain it all over again (but I thought that my examples of Mein Kampf and The Communist Manifesto would have made the point crystal clear: we KNOW without a doubt what their authors wrote; but that doesn’t mean that what they had to say is TRUE.)

Second and even more important: both kinds of fundamentalists – Muslim and Christian – seem to think that if there are textual problems in the manuscript tradition of the New Testament (which there are) that somehow that “disproves” or compromises the truth claims of the Christian religion.  THAT IS NOT THE CASE AT ALL.

People can’t understand this precisely because they are THINKING LIKE FUNDAMENTALISTS.

It is true that if the truth of a religion was to be rooted in having an *inerrant* revelation from God in the *very words* that he wants to communicate, and it turns out that a religion does *not* have those words because scribes have altered their texts over the years, then yes, of course, the textual problems of the New Testament would be damaging to Christianity.   But they are damaging only to THAT PARTICULAR *VERSION* of Christianity.  And that fundamentalist version of Christianity is NOT “Christianity.”  It’s a kind of Christianity.  A rather awful kind of Christianity.  A kind of Christianity that many other Christians hate deeply, wishing that people who hold such extreme views would simply wise up, think a bit more, or just go away.

Christianity is NOT about the inerrant revelation of God in the Bible.  Those who think it is are simply fundamentalists.   I’ll say more about why – from a historian’s perspective (not a theologian’s, since I’m not a theologian) — I think that’s just wrong, in a future post.


More Hard Issues on the Qur’an Fragments
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  1. Avatar
    Wilusa  July 28, 2015

    The only religion with which I have any experience is (Catholic) Christianity. And I’m convinced that, *regardless* of whether its doctrines are true (I don’t believe they are), it genuinely enriches some people’s lives…and *blights* other people’s lives. I suspect that’s true of Judaism and Islam as well. I’d only consider a faith “better,” in a sense, if it actually did succeed in enriching some lives without blighting others.

    BTW, I think there’s a type of “cultural evolution” underway. IMHO, *monarchies* will die out within the next century…and within the next *millennium*, so will theistic religions.

  2. Avatar
    doug  July 28, 2015

    When I believed the Bible was inerrant, I began with that conclusion and worked backward from there, cherry-picking and twisting what the Bible said to support my conclusion (and ignoring things the Bible said that were not very loving). I was being dishonest – but I wanted so badly to *believe* that I had the answer and that I was OK. Now I just think I’m OK – and that’s OK!

  3. Avatar
    nichael  July 28, 2015

    This doesn’t in any way contradict the points above, but I think that connected with these points is a fundamental misunderstandings that many Christians seem to have when discussing the role of the Qur’an in Islam.

    That is, when discussing Islam many (most?) Christians seem to view the “parallels” to “God/Christ/The NT” as being “Allah/Mohammed/The Qur’an. But I”m not sure this is correct.

    First, there’s the minor point that, as the proclamation states, “There is no god but Allah, and Mohammed is His prophet”. (Likewise the repeated insistence throughout the Qur’an on the error of viewing anyone other than God/Allah –including, and especially, Jesus– as in any way divine).

    But the more important point is that in Christianity, the central revelation of God in history is Christ. But in Islam that role –as the core revelation of Allah in the world– is performed by the Qur’an.

    That is: The more proper analogue of Mohammed in Christianity would probably be someone like Paul. The more accurate analogue to the Qur’an is Christ.

  4. Avatar
    godspell  July 28, 2015

    1)God is a perfect being.

    2)Men are imperfect beings (women also, though they would say less so).

    3)An imperfect being can never hope to fully understand a perfect being. To claim perfect understanding would be the same as claiming to be a perfect being.

    4)If a perfect being were to express its will to an imperfect being, the imperfect understanding of the imperfect being would mean that there would be errors in translation–a garbled transmission.

    5)Christians believe Christ was a perfect being (God) who somehow got born into the body of an imperfect being (Jesus). They think he was therefore both perfect and imperfect at the same time. Okayyyyyyyy…….

    6)Muslims believe–in fact, they insist–that Muhammad was a mortal man, NOT God, therefore not perfect. There is no God but God. Therefore, there is only one perfect being. Who expressed His will to an imperfect being, through the Archangel Gabriel, who is better than a man, but still imperfect (otherwise, how would you explain fallen angels like Satan/Shaitan, that both Christians and Muslims believe in?).

    7)So a perfect being told an imperfect being what to tell an even more imperfect being, and we’re supposed to believe it all came out perfectly? Alternatively, we can believe that the words of Jesus, a perfect being residing in the body of an imperfect being, were perfectly transcribed, his meanings perfectly conveyed, even though the people who preserved his words (but did not write them down as he spoke them) were so imperfect that they variously betrayed, abandoned, and forsook him?

    That’s about the size of it.


  5. Rick
    Rick  July 28, 2015

    ” they believe they have a literal, verbal, inerrant revelation from God,
    and they are very intent on convincing others to think so as well. ”

    why does this remind of Winston Churchill’s:

    “A fanatic
    Is someone who can’t change his mind
    And won’t change the subject…”

    • Bart
      Bart  July 29, 2015


    • Avatar
      godspell  July 29, 2015

      And given Churchill’s notoriously stubborn personality, he knew whereof he spoke. But he had a sense of humor about it. 😉

  6. Avatar
    prince  July 28, 2015

    Makes much sense what you have articulated Bart…Thanks for expressing your much needed clarifications… next topic please.. 🙂

  7. cheito
    cheito  July 28, 2015

    DR Ehrman:

    Your Comment:

    “Christianity is NOT about the inerrant revelation of God in the Bible.”

    My Comment:

    To me Christianity is about the resurrection of Jesus Christ From the dead.
    Did God raise jesus from the dead or not?
    I believe he did!
    I also believe Paul was telling the truth when he witnessed that he saw Christ after his resurrection!
    I also believe, we do have among the many documents we possess, the inspired words of God, but they have been altered deliberately. Some documents were altered more than others.
    We also have books that were written by men, but not inspired by God.
    I believe the so called ‘Ten commandments were inspired by God not by men.’
    I can’t prove it but I believe it!

    • Avatar
      shakespeare66  July 29, 2015

      When did Paul see Jesus after his resurrection and what Biblical passage is that that shows this? Thanks for your help.

  8. Avatar
    shakespeare66  July 28, 2015

    When one takes into account the depth and complexity of both books, the Bible and the Qur’an, there are bound to be variations in interpretation. There is more “sectism” as I like to call it than there is in Islam, but they have diversity, too. I used to explain to students that religion is like a political spectrum. There are conservatives in a religion who are “fundamentalist” and there are liberals who are less likely to interpret “letter of the law.” This variation exists in all sects of Christianity including Catholicism to Baptists. These extremes also exist in Islam. We all know about extremist Islam. Many Muslims don’t care for it. While it might be noble to make an effort to communicate to these people, it is wasted breath or wasted writing. They do not hear what you are saying anyway. I have a brother who belongs to a fundamentalist religion and it is a total waste of time to try to talk to him about Christianity as I know it historically ( thanks to you, Bart Ehrman), so I don’t even go there. I tried once, and the first thing that comes out of their mouths is that “you are the devil.” I am sure you have had that said to you many times ( perhaps you’d like a dollar for every nasty comment), but this is their mind set. Sometimes Christians like to explain things by saying, “But God works in mysterious ways, and so it is not for us to question.” Nothing to me is more mysterious that how one arrives at the state of mind that one does in life….how is it that some become extreme conservatives and others extreme liberals….it simply baffles the mind. So it also does with religion…how some clamp onto bizarre and extreme religions like Scientology and Jehovah’s Witness is just not understandable and that to me is what is truly MYSTERIOUS and if God is working in mysterious ways with his so-called plan, then this is one giant mystery. Bart, you are forever the teacher professor who makes every attempt at effectively communicating your information ( and I might add, you rank in the top 2 of professor communicators that I have takes, and I took 268 units of college credit!), so I commend you for trying to communicate with those who will not hear, cannot read, won’t listen and are set mentally to never change. Bravo for trying.

  9. Avatar
    Jana  July 28, 2015

    Hello Dr. Ehrman, my comment is out of context. I’ve not had internet for five weeks BUT I had previously downloaded 49 (including BBC) of your videos. Thus sans internet, a silver lining in disguise, daily I’ve been watching one or two and I have lots of questions. It’s late tonight … so mañana.

  10. Avatar
    fishician  July 29, 2015

    Just this evening I was thinking, those who believe in revelation from the Spirit: people claim widely divergent views of what the Spirit is saying! Those who believe in revelation in the written word: people claim widely divergent views of what the Bible says! The problem I have: Don’t you think the supreme intelligence of the Universe could make His views a little clearer to us, His creatures, whom He wants to save? A repeat performance after 2000 years would go a long way towards clearing up the confusion. Or is God not that concerned about whether we get it right?

  11. Avatar
    Stephen  July 29, 2015

    Prof Ehrman

    I guess I have a problem with taking a descriptor like “fundamentalist” out of its cultural context and applying it freely to other cultural traditions. I understand it is a kind of shorthand for the literalist approach but it distorts what are very real differences between religious traditions. For example in Islam it is a perfectly orthodox mainstream view that the Koran was dictated to Muhammad by the angel Gabriel. In this view Allah wrote the Koran. He didn’t just inspire Muhammad to write the Koran. A Christian viewing the Bible as dictation from God would of course be considered a “fundamentalist”. But I know politically/socially moderate, even “liberal” Muslims who nevertheless accept the Koran as the literal words of Allah. The arguments are over the interpretation of those words. I’m afraid that taking a Christian template and overlaying it onto another tradition can’t help but distort our understanding of that other tradition.

    • Bart
      Bart  July 29, 2015

      I”m not sure that “fundamentalism” is necessarily “Christian” — but I take your point.

  12. Avatar
    SteveWalach  July 29, 2015

    “… Knowing the exact words of a text does not make the text true. It simply means that you know what its author(s) wrote.”

    For a literalist, knowing the text is just about the end of the story — the final step is having full faith in the exact words that one believes come from a “true” source.

    However, understanding the words and their context seems to be a whole other story.

    For example, how does the literalist understand the first several words of the Lord’s Prayer: “Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy Name”? Assuming those are the exact words of Jesus, what does the literalist — or even a biblical scholar like you — understand “hallowed be thy Name” to mean?

    Or is that phrase simply taken at face value (if there is such a thing), and the richly complex, revered and often debatable term, “the Name,” largely ignored?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 30, 2015

      I assume people who think about it think that it means “let your Name, which is the embodiment of your being, be considered and treated as the reverential and awe-inspiring “Other” that it, and you, are”

      • Avatar
        SteveWalach  August 2, 2015

        I seldom encounter anyone in Christian circles who thinks about “the Name” — other than scholars, but even then not so much among NT specialists — even though the NT has many references to it.

        If the Name is the embodiment of the Father, i.e. God, then how does that embodiment square with Jesus, who to most Christians is “the” embodiment of God?

        In John 17, the “priestly prayer” of Jesus to the Father [God], Jesus says “I have manifested your [God’s] name” but Jesus also says, “Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me …”

        Most NT scholars I have read generally equate Jesus with the name, but does this mean Jesus is praying to himself in The Lord’s Prayer? And if Jesus and the name are one, then why is Jesus asking the Father to keep the disciples in God’s name, implying that he — Jesus — and the sacred name are not one and the same?

        Because the literal truth of the passages hardly seems straight-forward, don’t these passages seem to cry out for an interpretation — for fundamentalists and everyone else?

        Thanks for considering.

        • Bart
          Bart  August 2, 2015

          I don’t think scholars typically think that Jesus *is* “the name” do they?

          • Avatar
            SteveWalach  August 2, 2015

            Bart August 2, 2015
            I don’t think scholars typically think that Jesus *is* “the name” do they?

            My apologies. There’s no way I should be generalizing about what “most scholars” typically think. However, the common agreement of those who write about “high Christology” — most evident in John’s gospel — seems to be that Jesus is the “Logos made flesh;” Jesus is “equal with God” (John 5:18); and that Jesus and the Father “are one” (John 10:30), which is what you write in your book “How Jesus Became God” (p 279).

            And you also note that John’s Jesus claims he has “the name” while on earth — before he has been raised from the dead. You quite rightly, I think, conclude that the Jews, as portrayed in G John, “understand full well what Jesus is saying about himself when he makes such claims. The regularly take up stones to execute him for committing blasphemy” (p. 280).

            (I do not mean to imply that you — or any other scholar — puts full faith in John’s characterization of Jesus as God.)

            Another scholar, Larry Hurtado, in “Lord Jesus Christ” provides several references from Isaiah linking the name with God, so much so that he concludes “GJohn draws upon this rich, close, almost interchangeable association of God and God’s name to express a uniquely intimate relationship between Jesus and the father.” And, “Furthermore, the statements in John 14: 9-10 … are likely to be taken as reflecting and cohering with the idea that Jesus has been given the divine name, and in some direct sense embodies it on earth” (p. 385).

            He further states: “In GJohn this ‘son of man’ bears, manifests, and in some profoundly unique sense IS the divine name in earthly expression, and so the coming glorification of Jesus is also the glorification of God’s name” (p. 386).

            I don’t think practicing Christians today think much — if at all — about the Name, God, and Jesus in similar terms to the way you and Hurtado consider that convergence. However, if Christians understood that God and the name were interchangeable terms — as Hurtado says, then I think they would have no trouble saying that Jesus is the Name because in their minds Jesus is God and if the name is God then Jesus is the Name, too.

            Hurtado somewhat hedges his conclusion with the qualifiers “in some direct sense” and he uses the word “embodies” — rather than “equals” — the name, but I don’t think most Christians today would be as circumspect.

            However, if we have Jesus, God, the Holy Spirit, and then “the name of God” all having divine status, then Christian theology becomes more complex, doesn’t it? Which is what I was getting at in my original question about the Lord’s Prayer, and which may be why Christian authorities today prefer to let it slide.

            I am not a scholar — obviously. Nevertheless, I am deeply intrigued not only by the frequent references to the name of God in the NT and in other non-canonical writings from the 1st and 2nd Century CE, but also by the relatively little attention the “name” receives in Christian circles.

            Thank you for bearing with me.

          • Bart
            Bart  August 3, 2015

            Right. There is a HUGE difference for scholars between saying that Jesus was “given” the name (something often stated) and saying that he “was” the name (not often stated; I’m not sure I’ve seen anyone take this line, offhand).

  13. Avatar
    Prizm  August 11, 2015

    Bart, you should do a ‘maniac’s mailbag’ feature where you post some of the amusing emails you get.

  14. Avatar
    JSTMaria  August 12, 2015

    Dr. Ehrman,

    I meant to ask a question a while back when this thread was active. Isn’t the concept or expectation of an inerrant New Testament somewhat, well, silly? If Jesus is believed to be YHVH, who provided his pretty solid Word from on high to Moses to begin with, then why aren’t the Gospels (errors and all) simply considered to be an attempt at a record of the expected Messiah walking the Earth and nothing more? I think people forget that Jesus was Jewish and claimed he wasn’t there to change a jot or tittle from the Law of Moses, which by the admission of most scholars has maintained a fairly consistent translation over the centuries. Shouldn’t the Gospels just be viewed as proof (to Christians, anyway) of a Messiah and nothing more? If Jesus “fulfilled the Law,” doesn’t that just mean He was the shining example of what the Law leads to when it is followed in it’s entirety? Especially if He is believed to be the Author of it? Anyway…just seems like the NT isn’t exactly giving any *new* Law to follow other than love one another. Your thoughts? Thanks!

    • Bart
      Bart  August 13, 2015

      The earliest Christians did not think Jesus was YHWH; some did at a later time, but not till the mid second century.

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