I was breezing through some old posts and came across this one from many years ago; I’d forgotten all about it, but it still make me smile and scratch my head.
Several readers of this blog have pointed me to an article in the conservative journal First Things; the article (a review of a book by the evangelical scholar Craig Blomberg) was written by Louis Markos, an English professor at Houston Baptist University. The title is called “Ehrman Errant.” I must say, that did not sound like a promising beginning.
I had never heard of Louis Markos before – had certainly never met him, talked with him about myself or my life, shared with him my views of important topics, spent time to see how he ticked and to let him see how I do. I don’t know the man, and he doesn’t know me. And so it was with some considerable surprise that I read the beginning of his article.
“I feel great pity for Bart Ehrman.”
So, from someone I don’t know, that’s a bit of a shocker. I can understand why a friend of mine might have felt some (but not great?) pity for me at some points of my life – when I had such an impossible time, for years, finding any kind of a teaching position even though I had a PhD from a very fine program; when my father died at the sad young age of 65; when I went through a divorce and was forced, then, not to see my kids grow up every day. There have been bad times in my life, and my friends have been beside me through them.
But that’s not why Dr. Markos feels “great pity” (not some pity – but great pity). No, he feels great pity for me because when I was a fundamentalist I was the wrong kind of fundamentalist; if I had been the right kind of fundamentalist I never would have left fundamentalism: the kinds of things that I found to be highly problematic about fundamentalism are problematic only for the kind of fundamentalist that I was. And if I had remained the right kind of fundamentalist, I would still hold to the truth, and my life would be fantastic and not to be pitied — as opposed to the life I live now which is, evidently, greatly to be pitied.
I really can’t help but think that if Dr. Markos knew anything at all about my life, he wouldn’t consider pity, great or small, to be the most obvious or appropriate response to it. My life is flat-out fantastic, in every respect. There are hard times, and sad times, and grievous times (in this past few months, e.g.), but my life is great and I relish it. I hope Dr. Markos’s life is as good as mine. But if he spends his time pitying people he’s never met, whose lives he doesn’t know, then I wonder what kind of life he actually has. On the other hand, frankly, I don’t wonder too much, since I tend not to pity people I know nothing about, at least happy and content people.
In any event, Dr. Markos goes on to explain the source of his great pity for my pathetic life:
It appears that the kind of fundamentalism in which the Christian believer [Ehrman] turned biblical debunker was raised did not prepare him for the challenges he would face in college. He was taught, rightly, that there are no contradictions in the Bible, but he was trained, quite falsely, to interpret the non-contradictory nature of the Bible in modern, scientific, post-Enlightenment terms. That is to say, he was encouraged to test the truth of the Bible against a verification system that has only existed for some 250 years.
I find this statement so puzzling on so many levels that I don’t know where to start. His basic point is that we can’t judge the Bible by modern forms of thinking, logic, evidence, modes of verification, scientific knowledge, and so on, but by the intellectual terms that were available before the Enlightenment. That is, we should not read the Bible as intelligent modern people but as pre-modern people. And if we do that, we won’t have any problems with it, and we’ll see that in fact there are no contradictions (from the perspective of ignorant pre-modern people). So, I am to be “greatly pitied” because I never realized that the most valid approach to the Bible is that of uninformed pre-Enlightenment people.
Right. OK, so as I said. Where to start?
First off, let me state that when Dr. Markos indicates that I was raised in the kind of fundamentalism that insisted on modern modes of analysis and verification and that this did not prepare me for college, he shows that he doesn’t know the first thing about my life. The fundamentalism I acquired was precisely in college (Moody Bible Institute). (Before that I was an avid Episcopalian and presumably, then, much more to be pitied!) My kind of fundamentalism was one that says there are no mistakes in the Bible of any kind, doctrinally, ethically, historically, scientifically. There are no absolute contradictions (even though there may be places that look like contradictions: these can be reconciled). There are no scientific errors (The world really was created in six 24-hour days, with evenings and mornings; Adam and Eve really were the first human beings). There are no historical mistakes (Quirinius really was the governor of Syria when Herod was King of Judea). Everything the Bible affirms to be true is true. This was what I learned precisely *in* college. Strikingly, it’s the kind of fundamentalism that Dr. Markos himself appears to embrace, as I’ll explain in a later post.
Second, let me say that the clear implication that Dr. Markos makes – that I don’t realize that there are differences between modern modes of verification and ancient modes – is ludicrous. I spend my entire career teaching students that modern forms of rationality (including the kind Dr. Markos subscribes to, I might add), would not have been possible prior to the Enlightenment, and that the ancient world saw things quite differently. For ancient readers, it would have been no scientific problem for God to make the “sun stand still” in the book of Joshua so that the Israelites could continue the slaughter of their enemies (they would have no moral problem with the passage either. Damn Canaanites: they deserved to be slaughtered!). Modern scientists might wonder how that could happen since (a) it is the earth that is rotating, not the sun moving, and b) stopping the earth from rotating for a long afternoon would have destroyed the planet. Ancient people didn’t have that problem.
Third, I should say that it does indeed seem appropriate to me to study the Bible not only to see what the ancients would have made of it or to see what they would have found problematic about it, but also to see what we moderns can make of it and find problematic in it. If we want to know whether it is possible for the “sun to stand still” – do we want to ask that as ancient people as modern scientists? Do we want to adopt ancient views of things because those were the views of the Bible and the times of the Bible? Let’s think about it for a second. Suppose you have a hammering toothache. Since you want to live and think like they did in biblical times, do you want to implement the solution for your toothache that they had in ancient times? Or to you prefer to go to a modern dentist who has, for example, a handy supply of xylocaine?
My point: of *course* biblical authors had different ways of evaluating truth claims and of accepting historical, geographical, scientific views than we do today. Am I really to be (greatly) pitied for thinking that modern people should think like modern people? Of course we should work to see how ancient people read and understood their texts – that’s my day job, it’s what I do all the time. But to say that since ancient people didn’t see problems in the stories they told (e.g., that there was a flood that covered the entire world killing everything on it; or that an angel of death destroyed on one night all the firstborn children in all of Egypt; or that someone made an iron axehead float on the water – pick your passage) we shouldn’t see those problems either is a case of naivete of the worst sort.
I’ll say more about Dr. Markos’s little article in the next post, just because I can’t help myself….