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How I First Realized There Are Mistakes in the Bible

I have told the story before of how I first came to realize there might be mistakes in the Bible.  Rather than paraphrasing it again, I’ll simply reproduce the account as I presented it the first time I went public with my faith journey, back in my 2005 book Misquoting Jesus.  Here is what I said there:

**************************************************************

Upon arriving at Princeton Theological Seminary, I immediately signed up for first-year Hebrew and Greek exegesis (= interpretation) classes, and loaded my schedule as much as I could with such courses.  I found these classes to be a challenge, both academically and personally.  The academic challenge was completely welcome.  But the personal challenges that I faced were emotionally rather trying.  As I indicated, already at Wheaton I had begun to question some of the foundational aspects of my commitment to the Bible as the inerrant word of God.  That commitment came under serious assault in my detailed studies at Princeton.  I resisted any temptation to change my views, and found a number of friends who, like me, came from conservative evangelical schools and were trying to “keep the faith” (a funny way of putting it – looking back – since we were, after all, in a Christian divinity program).  But my studies started catching up with me.

A turning point came in my second semester, in a course I was taking with a much revered and pious professor named Cullen Story.  The course was …

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Finding Problems in the Old Testament
My Resistance to Change at Princeton Seminary

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Comments

  1. RonaldTaska  May 9, 2017

    And then I started to also realize that my church teachers and preachers were also making mistakes and complicating the matter by spinning them more than Sean Spicer and Kellyanne Conway…..

    • GregLogan  May 20, 2017

      WELL STATED – and that the vermin in “the temple” are simply liars….

  2. godspell  May 9, 2017

    The mistakes in scripture are only a problem if we need to believe they are the divinely inspired inerrant word of God.

    Once we accept them as the work of flawed fallible human beings, we can see them for the tremendous cultural achievement they truly are–and still gain great wisdom and insight from them.

    We should love and respect our parents, right? That’s actually in the bible (and many another ancient text from basically every culture that ever existed and wrote things down), but there’s also a lot of instances of parents behaving badly, making mistakes, screwing up. Because to grow up is to realize your mom and dad aren’t perfect. That they made mistakes. That sometimes they did the wrong thing. That they were just people. Like you.

    And I would say that an indispensable part of becoming a true adult is to see your parents as people, like you, and not hate them for that–to forgive them their flaws, and love them all the more for realizing how hard it was, having so much responsibility, trying to solve the conundrums of life, and failing over and over, as everyone ultimately does. To forgive them for being human. And to never ever forget all the things you learned from them–from what they did right, and just as much from what they did wrong. You try to do better than them, but you don’t forget how much you owe to their example, positive and negative, and to the ground they broke for you, before you even existed.

    I’d call that a pretty good analogy for how we should view scripture, and those who wrote it.

    • ffg  May 11, 2017

      Great comment

    • GregLogan  May 20, 2017

      That is exactly what I have come to….

      I regret it took till almost 60yo to do so….

      The floodgates have opened.

  3. Michael  May 9, 2017

    Great article, Dr. Ehrman. I have a question that I hope you can answer: am I correct that only one high priest who was in charge of the Temple? Or is there several high priests who were in charge of the Temple, as Luke indicates? Is Luke writing fiction here?

    “Annas and Caiaphas were the high priests. At this time a message from God came to John son of Zechariah, who was living in the wilderness” (Luke 3:2).

    • Bart
      Bart  May 11, 2017

      Yes, there was only one high priest at a time. Luke appears not to have known that.

  4. nbraith1975  May 9, 2017

    Bart – What do you think about Paul saying that Jesus appeared to the “twelve” (Apostles) after his resurrection? (1 Cor. 15:5) I find this to be a big mistake; given the multiple gospel stories about Judas’s betrayal and subsequent suicide. Wouldn’t Paul have known that there were only 11 Apostles at that time?
    Thank You

    • Bart
      Bart  May 11, 2017

      I’ve long pondered it. It’s interesting that Paul never mentions Judas at all. Did he know that tradition? My guess is not. The other option is that “the twelve” was simply a code name that didn’t mean there were really twelve of them — just as in college football, the league called the Big Ten actually has fourteen members. It’s worth noting, in any event, that the Gospel of Peter *also* seems to assume that there were twelve after Jesus’ resurrection. It too says/knows nothing of a Judas tradition. But I think I’ll add your query to the Mailbag for a fuller answer.

      • Tony  May 11, 2017

        We can solve the problem with far fewer assumptions by hypothesising Mark’s gospel is a literary fabrication based on Paul’s letters – later copied and embellished by others. Paul never identifies “the twelve”, but having first read the NT Gospels readers would naturally assume that Paul refers to disciples.

        Are there any indicators supporting this notion in Mark’s gospel? There are! Mark uses the Pauline terminology of “apostles” and “the twelve” when he first introduces his disciples. Mk 3:14 “And he appointed twelve, who he also named apostles…. “, and Mk 3:16 “So he appointed the twelve…”

        Of course, the Judas story is as fabricated as the rest.

      • Eskil  May 12, 2017

        You do not seem to give any credits to…

        Acts 1:21-22 “Therefore it is necessary to choose one of the men who have been with us the whole time the Lord Jesus was living among us, beginning from John’s baptism to the time when Jesus was taken up from us. For one of these must become a witness with us of his resurrection.”

        Acts 1:26 “Then they cast lots, and the lot fell to Matthias; so he was added to the eleven apostles.”

        Even the twelve apostles and the disiples do not seem to be the same in Luke…

        Acts 10:1 “After this the Lord appointed seventy-twoa others and sent them two by two ahead of him to every town and place where he was about to go.”

        Why should we think there were only 11 apostles after Judas? The 12 is all the time referring to to the 12 Jewish tribes, aren’t they? 72 refers to sanhedrin, right?

        • Bart
          Bart  May 14, 2017

          Acts 1 is recording an event later than what Paul was referring to.

  5. wostraub  May 9, 2017

    Thanks, Bart. As you noted, there are lots of little picayune errors in the Hebrew Bible and New Testament that don’t mean much (like the transcendental number pi being exactly 3 in I Kings 7:23-26), but your examples of Jesus’s birth in Matthew and Luke and his crucifixion date in Mark and John are truly irreconcilable. It seems the only way a Christian inerrantist could possibly deal with these is not to know about them in the first place — which is the approach many believers resort to.

  6. flshrP  May 9, 2017

    You wrote: But at the end of my paper he made a simple one-line comment that for some reason went straight through me.  He wrote: “Maybe Mark just made a mistake.”  I started thinking about it, considering all the work I had put into the paper, realizing that I had had to do some pretty fancy exegetical footwork to get around the problem, and that my solution was in fact a bit of a stretch.  And I finally concluded, “Hmm… maybe Mark did make a mistake.”

    I had a similar “Aha” experience when I was 10 or 11 years old (circa 1950). I and three of my buddies were tapped to serve at a High Mass. We got into our altar boy duds and were sitting in the sacristy on the floor, backs to the wall, while the priest was getting into his vestments. When he finished he said “OK boys. Let’s go. It’s show time”. My tiny grade school brain recoiled at these words. “Show time!!!! This is a High Mass, for God’s sake, not a stage play or piano recital”.

    I never forgot this incident. And it planted the seed of doubt in my mind that led slowly but surely to skepticism about my particular religion and then to religious belief in general.

    Later as an undergraduate in a major Jesuit university, I learned a lot about how to think skeptically (the Jesuits pride themselves on this ability).

    Having to sit through mandatory theology and philosophy classes had a generally corrosive effect on my religious belief. (I was a physics/math major so I was pretty much primed going in to consider what is taught in these courses as just so much nonsense). So unburdening myself of my childhood religious indoctrination became much easier in my late 30s.

    • Wilusa  May 11, 2017

      My father said that when he was a Catholic altar boy, the priests really *needed* those altar boys, because they were usually so drunk or hung over that they couldn’t have gotten through the Mass without them!

      That *was* a long time ago – my father was born in 1898.

  7. Benjamin
    Benjamin  May 9, 2017

    Mistakes were a hallmark of of men. It cannot be attributed to the divine, but once in awhile God repents what he did. Maybe the Jewish buddies who wrote these were also prone to change their minds and they were not so absolute as we have imagined them to be. This is how I see it, they changed the story as they saw fit, on a few occasions, invented a thing or two, and when they copied these texts, they found it convenient to change as these. Why cannot we simply accept that their God is Jewish and a Near Eastern person? Our legality is from a Roman society, so our God is a Jove. This would explain why Jesus and Mary start to look more and more like the unconquered sun. O, Eminent One, whom I worship, what does thou think? (the last line was written for the Evangelicals on the blog). Here I am, and all the children thou has given me. I have come to do thy bidding.

  8. Tobit  May 9, 2017

    Dr Ehrman,

    I watched your debate with James White recently and you two seemed to reach an impasse about the existence of the original NT among the extant textual variants. White said he agreed with Wallace and Silva, while you said Epp, Parker, Elliot and others would agree with you.

    Although you don’t agree, would you say it’s an academically supportable position? As a layperson I don’t understand their reasoning, wouldn’t the very first copies have errors, potentially losing parts of the original forever?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 11, 2017

      It’s pretty simple really: how would we *know* unless we had the originals to compare our manuscripts to? There are some texts that are judged original based on what is found in only one manuscript. What if that manuscript, like countless others, had been lost?

      • Tobit  May 11, 2017

        Oh yes, I understand not knowing for sure what’s original without the actual originals to compare.

        But I don’t understand the other side, why do they think we can be sure the original exist somewhere among the existing variants?

        • Bart
          Bart  May 12, 2017

          They really want that to be true.

          • GregLogan  May 20, 2017

            !!!!

  9. Christopher
    Christopher  May 9, 2017

    So, I’m 29 years old, and I *really* like studying human spirituality, comparative religion, and New Testament studies. I’d like to be a kind of atheistic pastor which affirms the psychological power of Christianity, among many other religions, as an artful expression of humanity very powerful, and often worthy of being embraced, while tempered by rational, at time. A bit wordy – I know – but what I’m asking you is if there are seminaries, or universities, or whatever, where one can go to become a theologian, or pastor, while also affirming a rational atheism? This is a weird dynamic, I know – but my impression of the matter is that one can engage in these kind of “spiritual games” where ones embraces a spiritual myth as real, and one steps into a realm where one wonders, openly and honestly, if they are not really real after all, and get real value out of the experience, while simultaneously embracing that, in one’s “rational mind”, one understands that these myths are very improbable and not historically based.

    • Bart
      Bart  May 11, 2017

      Sure — very liberal ones, starting with Harvard Divinity School. You might look into Unitarian churches and seminaries.

  10. Tempo1936  May 9, 2017

    Did the judgemental condemnation of homosexuality (and all kinds of human activities) by Paul ever bother you when you were a fundamentalist?
    1 Corinthians 6:9
    Or do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men

  11. leo.b@cox.net  May 9, 2017

    I would appreciate if in this string of blogs you could address an important issue for me.
    I want to thank you for your extensive work in explaining the truth about the bible (with which I agree) and 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. Thanks again.

    • Bart
      Bart  May 11, 2017

      There’s no logic in it at all. And that’s why my problems with the Bible didn’t lead me to become an atheist. I’ll add your question to the Mailbag for a fuller answer.

  12. HawksJ  May 9, 2017

    Do you think that most fundamentalists actually believe that there are no errors, or do you think they simply realize the ‘danger’ of the slippery slope that you, in fact, slid down?

    Obviously, there are many that believe it, but I think there are also plenty – especially parents – who fall into the latter category. This certainly applies to some ministers as well.

    • Bart
      Bart  May 11, 2017

      Yes, I think there are some of both, and some who are both at once.

  13. Matt7  May 10, 2017

    This reminds me of Occam’s razor. Has it been your experience that the simplest explanations are usually the correct ones?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 11, 2017

      usually the criterion is applied to problems whose answers we cannot actually *know*, and so it’s hard to say if the conclusions are necessarily correct. But like most thinking people, I tend to think simpler answers are better.

      • joeydag  May 12, 2017

        The simpler answers are a good place to start testing and analyzing but not necessarily better.

  14. bensonian  May 10, 2017

    I would be curious to know what that initial paper looked like based on 1 Samuel 21: 1-6. Is that available anywhere?

  15. Lev
    Lev  May 10, 2017

    Hey Bart,

    A little off topic, but I’ve been watching some of your videos on your youtube channel where you contest that the gospels were written 40, 50, or 60 years after the events they cover.

    Could you recommend the best books or authors I should read that establish the provenance of the canonical gospels? I’m keen to learn how these dates were established amongst critical scholars.

    Many thanks.

  16. davitako  May 10, 2017

    Hello Bart, an off the topic question, sorry.

    As several other countries, we have a tradition in Georgia about Saint Andrew (the apostle). According to the tradition, Andrew, the Apostle was the first to preach Christianity in Georgia in the first century.
    I saw that several other countries have legends about him visiting those territories too.

    How likely true do you think these traditions are?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 12, 2017

      I don’t think there’s much chance they are accurate. They are all later legends. We simply don’t have reliable (or early) sources of information, at all. My guess is that most of the disciples never left Palestine.

  17. mannix  May 10, 2017

    Bart,
    Do you think you may be a victim of the “pendulum phenomenon”, wherein your indoctrination into fundamentalism was so intense that when you “saw the light” you swung way into the opposite direction? Another way to look at it is “the higher you go, the harder you fall”. I’m a “congenital” Catholic who underwent the standard dogmatic education…nothing intense. I gradually and painlessly realized biblical errors and adjusted my views accordingly (I am now a “cafeteria” Catholic, taking what I want and leaving the rest!). I bought your latest edition of the New Testament and your recent Bible textbook, and read a number of your works from the local library as well as Great Courses. The content has further adjusted my belief system but has not turned me into an atheist or incited resentment of past indoctrination attempts. Do you think that, if you had attended a secular college instead of Moody you would still have evolved into agnosticism/atheism?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 12, 2017

      I don’t think so, though people often suggest it. I didn’t swing to agnosticism until many years after I gave up being an evangelical.

  18. mjt  May 10, 2017

    Have you ever gone through a book like Archer’s Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties? Do books like these use convoluted harmonization tactics like you used for the Mark passage?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 12, 2017

      Yes, that was the kind of thing I was big on at Moody. And yes, many of the explanations are convoluted indeed.

  19. mjt  May 10, 2017

    Do you think there are any errors or contradictions in the bible, where we can say with 100% certainty we know it to be an error? Is there always some apologetic to explain away the ‘apparent’ mistake?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 12, 2017

      Yes, apologists can explain away *anything*. But there are certainly passages that I am completely certain are contradictions anyway, including some of those I mention in the posts over the past two days.

  20. searchingfortruthineverything  May 11, 2017

    During the Kingships of David and Solomon. It appears that when David finally gained the throne, Abiathar was made the high priest. Some scholars suggest that, after High Priest Ahimelech’s death, King Saul had Zadok installed as high priest to replace Ahimelech, thereby not recognizing Abiathar, who was in the company of Saul’s future successor, David. They hold that, following his ascension to the throne, David made Abiathar an associate high priest along with Zadok. Such view is evidently taken due to the fact that Zadok and Abiathar are regularly mentioned together as though sharing a high position in the priesthood. (2Sa 15:29, 35; 17:15; 19:11; 20:25; 1Ki 1:7, 8, 25, 26; 4:4; 1Ch 15:11) However, the inspired record nowhere mentions any appointment of Zadok as high priest under King Saul. It is possible that Zadok’s prominence is due to his being a seer or prophet, just as the prophet Samuel received greater mention in the divine record than the high priest of his time. (2Sa 15:27) The evidence indicates that Abiathar was the sole high priest during David’s reign and that Zadok then occupied a position secondary to him.—1Ki 2:27, 35; Mr 2:26.

    The text at 2 Samuel 8:17 has caused some question in this regard, since it says that “Zadok the son of Ahitub and Ahimelech the son of Abiathar were priests” then, but does not mention Abiathar as high priest. Some suggest that the names of Ahimelech and Abiathar were transposed by a scribal error so that the text should read “Abiathar the son of Ahimelech,” even as it does in the Syriac Peshitta. However, the record at 1 Chronicles (18:16; 24:3, 6, 31) confirms the order of the names in this verse as found in the Masoretic text. It therefore appears more likely that Zadok and Ahimelech are mentioned simply as secondary priests under High Priest Abiathar, and that Abiathar’s position was, in this instance, assumed to be understood.—1Ch 16:37-40; compare Nu 3:32.

    Abiathar, along with other priests, shared in the privilege of bringing the ark up from Obed-edom’s home to Jerusalem. (2Sa 6:12; 1Ch 15:11, 12) In addition to being high priest he was included in David’s group of advisers.—1Ch 27:33, 34.

    Toward the latter part of his father David’s reign, Absalom formed a conspiracy against him. Abiathar again stayed by David when circumstances forced the king to flee from Jerusalem. As part of a plan to thwart the counsel of traitorous Ahithophel, David’s previous counselor, Abiathar and Zadok as loyal priests were sent back to Jerusalem to serve as liaison officers to keep David advised of his rebellious son’s plans. (2Sa 15:24-36; 17:15) After Absalom’s death, Abiathar and Zadok served as intermediaries to arrange David’s return to the capital.—2Sa 19:11-14.

    In view of his faithful record of enduring many hardships in David’s company during his time as a fugitive from Saul and again during Absalom’s rebellion, and considering his having enjoyed David’s confidence, friendship, and favor during some four decades, it is surprising to find Abiathar linking himself up with another son of David, Adonijah, in a later conspiracy for the throne. Though the plot also had the support of Joab as head of the army, it failed; and Solomon was appointed as king, with loyal priest Zadok doing the anointing at David’s instruction. (1Ki 1:7, 32-40) Abiathar’s son Jonathan, who had previously served as a runner to bear news to David during Absalom’s insurrection, now went to advise Adonijah of the plot’s miscarriage. King Solomon took no immediate action against Abiathar, but when evidence showed that the plot was still smoldering, he ordered Adonijah’s and Joab’s death and Zadok was now assigned to replace Abiathar in his priestly position, and with this the office of high priest passed again to the line of Aaron’s son Eleazar; and the priestly line of the house of Eli came to a complete end, in fulfillment of the prophecy at 1 Samuel 2:31.—1Ki 2:27; 1Sa 3:12-14.

    While the record later, at 1 Kings 4:4, again refers to “Zadok and Abiathar” as priests of Solomon’s reign, it is likely that Abiathar is listed only in an honorary capacity or in a historical sense. Some scholars suggest that Solomon, after demoting Abiathar, then assigned him to serve as Zadok’s deputy, and that while one officiated on Mount Zion, where the Ark was kept, the other served at the tabernacle, which continued in Gibeon prior to the building of the temple. (See 1Ch 16:37-40.) However, 1 Kings 2:26 shows that Solomon sent Abiathar to his fields in Anathoth, and while Anathoth was not far from Gibeon, Solomon’s order indicates that Abiathar was being removed from any active participation in the priesthood.

    At Mark 2:26 most translations have Jesus saying that David went into the house of God and ate the showbread “when Abiathar was high priest.” Since Abiathar’s father, Ahimelech, was the high priest when that event took place, such translation would result in a historical error. It is noteworthy that a number of early manuscripts omit the above phrase, and it is not found in the corresponding passages at Matthew 12:4 and Luke 6:4. However, a similar Greek structure occurs at Mark 12:26 and Luke 20:37, and here many translations use the phrase “in the passage about.” (RS; AT; JB)

    Since the account of the first exploits of Abiathar begins immediately following the record of David’s entering the house of God to eat the showbread, and since Abiathar did later become Israel’s high priest in David’s reign, this maintains the historical accuracy of the record.

  21. ftbond  May 16, 2017

    Re: “As I indicated, already at Wheaton I had begun to question some of the foundational aspects of my commitment to the Bible as the inerrant word of God”.

    I’ve always considered myself fortunate that I wasn’t “raised Christian”, so I didn’t get indoctrinated with stuff like “the Bible [being] the inerrant word of God”. I never had some kind of “foundational commitment to Bible inerrancy”. Consequently, since I never had this idea that (for example) the gospels were supposed to be “inerrant”, I never got a bubble popped.

    I guess I always just figured the gospels (for example) were just writings by four guys who were all trying to convey something about the *person* of Jesus, and of course, the story of his death and resurrection. But I saw from very early on that there were discrepancies in the Bible, and it didn’t take too long to figure out there were some bonafide errors as well. Didn’t matter, though. I had no expectations whatsoever that somehow those writers had been endowed with some kind of Divine Knowledge, such that they’d get every detail right, and especially not that those four writers, writing in different times and different places, were somehow supposed to come up with perfectly matching accounts. They were four writers trying very hard to convey something of the *person* of a real-life person that was known by other real-life people, and had had close friends, and gone to weddings, and accepted dinner invitations from “deplorables”, and had a Mom and some siblings, and taught a group of disciples about the “Kingdom of God”, and who did some miraculous things, and was crucified, died, and was resurrected.

    Personally, I think Christians (at large) would do well to drop the whole “inerrant” thing altogether. The Bible is about “Truth” – but Truth does not require that “all historic fact” be true. (Note: don’t mistake me for saying “the gospels are largely fictionalized”. I don’t believe that at all.)

  22. GregLogan  May 20, 2017

    Bart

    I have greatly appreciated your contribution to my and all of our lives by your considerable scholarship and YT presentations (despite taking issue with the notion (that you seem to adhere to) that there is the least reference to Jesus as ontological deity in John…:-) ).

    My question – can you/any person separate out a recognition of the flaws of the Bible – from the reality of the Creator – and even a resurrected Jesus of Nazareth? This seems intuitively obvious – yet a allowing the recognition of errors in the Bible seems major stumbling for many re a belief in a Creator.

    My understanding of your real issue of a Creator entity is NOT your recognition of errors in the Bible – but of your despair of the massive and hideous human suffering that has and does exist on the plant – and the seeming irreconcilability of such experience with any meaningful sense of a Creator.

    Does this make sense?

    Again, my great thanks for your contribution – the annual subscription price is far less than the value provided.

    Greg Logan

    • Bart
      Bart  May 21, 2017

      yes, that’s right about my own faith. But my point is precisely that the accuracy of the Bible has no relation to whether God exists or not. People only think it does if they are either fundamentalists or have been told by fundamentalists that it is the case. But think about it. If Abiathar was *not* the high priest when David ate teh show bread, as Mark indicates, then would that mean there is no God? There’s no relationship between the two issues, unless you’re a fundamentalist or someone who thinks that fundamentalist assumptions about the Bible are true.

      • GregLogan  May 21, 2017

        Bart –

        Thanks – makes perfect sense. The goal is to de-couple of “faith” in the Bible – with “faith” in God. Knowledge of the Bible is NOT the experience of walking with God (Noah – mythic or not – did a great job of walking with God – without an NIV…. (ok, anyone can get by without an NIV – but even an ASV1901…:-) ).

        Therefore, in our ministry – we can approach the Bible with issues NOT as approaching God with issues – I think this will allow people to think much more clearly about the issues related to the Bible. And, yes, I see that many people have so wedded the Bible with God that they have become synonymous – certainly emotionally.

        Having decoupled then, the issue of course becomes – who is God – and how do we know [Him]…. Well – that is a lengthy discussion over high quality Independent bottlings of single cask, cask strength scotch….:-)

        Thanks so much for the follow-up!

        Greg Logan

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