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Is History a Four-Letter Word?

Most people on the planet simply are not interested in history.   I’d say that’s true of most American high school and college students.  History classes can be dreadfully boring, especially with the wrong teacher — and it is very hard to be a good teacher of history.  In high school, I had almost no interest in my history classes.  Names, dates, things that happened that had no relevance to anything I was interested in or what I felt like doing day to day.  Ugh.

But a good history teacher is a marvel to behold.  There is so much about the past that is fascinating, and, of course relevant.  And so, as it turns out, I’ve turned into a professional historian.  Go figure.

I’ve been thinking about this because of that debate I had on Monday with Peter Williams, a very bright evangelical Christian and a fine scholar of ancient Semitic languages who firmly believes that the Bible conveys God’s Truth, in every way, so that there are no mistakes of any kind in it.

I don’t see this as a historical approach to the Bible but a religious/theological one.   Christians who take this view are not interested in studying the Bible the way other ancient books would be studied.  For them it is given by God, and so it’s different, and a “historical” approach is in fact inimical to a “true” understanding of it.

Peter – at least as I was hearing him – seemed to me to affirm that view whole heartedly.  The “discussion” we had (the moderator didn’t want to call it a debate) will be posted online sometime in the fall, not sure when, and so you can see for yourself if my assessment is right.  But it did seem to me that Peter thought/thinks that “history” is a four-letter word.

He contrasted his approach to the Bible with how historians in “university history departments” (the term he used with a bit of disdain) approach their texts.  In making the differentiation he actually did make an extremely good point.    He indicated that…

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Could Most People Write in Antiquity?
Changing Your Mind. Or Not.



  1. Avatar
    tskorick  July 19, 2019

    This almost seems like erstwhile market-driven pseudo-history. As long as consumer confirmation bias demands that which confirms, there will always be a market for it. The reason I use the word “erstwhile” is that I could scarcely accuse those who engage in this of doing it so cynically. I really do think they believe. And are utterly unaware of their corrupted motives.

  2. Robert
    Robert  July 19, 2019

    This is why these evangelical ‘scholars’ are categorically not scholars. In the past you have defended some as indeed genuine scholars, but if they cannot accurately represent an argument they subsequently claim to have refuted or if they cannot approach a biblical or other text free from methodological and theological bias, they are doing something other than scholarship, regardless of how many hours they spend in a library or whatever academic positions they hold. I suppose one can politely distinguish between a religious scholar and a critical scholar, but is it really scholarship if it abandons critical thinking in a fundamental area of the discipline?

  3. Avatar
    godspell  July 19, 2019

    Bart, is there anywhere in the Bible itself where it is stated that the text is divinely inspired? Obviously in Exodus, the 10 Commandments are directly written by God, and I could understand Mr. Williams saying those cannot be questioned (to be a member of a religion, you do have to hold some beliefs that can’t be questioned for any reason, or you don’t have a religion).

    But as you’ve pointed out, in the gospels, we’re told very directly upfront that a human being is writing, and has gone to some pains to gather this information–God didn’t just appear in a puff of smoke and hand him the book.

    This is different from some OT texts, which while clearly written long after the events described, don’t have any author’s preface, so to speak. It has long seemed obvious to me that evangelicals tend to secretly prefer the OT, and this may be one of the reasons for that. The OT texts are mainly mythology, but the NT, while containing many mythic elements, is further back in the process–it’s more of a chronicle of something that is just then taking form, and so has much more of the dreaded history in it.

    A divinely inspired text–or even a text that was compiled with the express intent of appearing divinely inspired–wouldn’t contradict itself so often as the bible does.

    • Bart
      Bart  July 21, 2019

      2 Timothy 3:16 does say that all scripture is inspired by God (literally “God-breathed”). It doesn’t indicate which books were considered scripture, though (there were debates all the time about the limits of the Jewish Scriptures), and it certainly does not include the books of the NT.

      • Avatar
        jdmartin21  July 22, 2019

        The preceding verse, 2 Timothy 3:15 says, “and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.” The author, who falsely claims to be Paul, has Paul remind the adult Timothy that when he was a child (what, 15 or 20 years earlier? more?) that there were Christian writings to instruct Timothy in the faith. Did this author really believe there were pre-Pauline Christian writings or is this just another tell of the forgery?

        • Bart
          Bart  July 23, 2019

          It’s not clear if he means the Jewish Scriptures pointing to Christ or Christian writings about Christ. If the latter, then yes, that would be a clear sign this ain’t from Paul. But it might mean the former.

    • Avatar
      Kawfmin  July 21, 2019

      Many if not all OT prophets frame their prophecies with the phrase “so said the Lord”, or something along those lines. A direct claim that the words we read are straight from God.

      I find it strange to hear people say that that the NT is the word of God when, unlike the OT prophets, its authors never make such a claim. Paul’s letters, for example, are….letters from a guy named Paul. He never presents them as any more than that, does he?

  4. Avatar
    JGonzalezGUS  July 19, 2019

    Great post. I wished you had made it available to the public so I could share it with some of my friends. It lays the arguments down perfectly.

    • Avatar
      Sixtus  July 23, 2019

      There is the generate PDF button at the end of these articles. I don’t know how you treat PDFs, but the ones I download tend to hang around — kinda like the Gospels.

  5. Avatar
    AstaKask  July 19, 2019

    Does he also reject scholarly views on the authorship of e.g., 1 and 2 Peter?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 21, 2019

      Absolutely — he thinks all the named authors were the actual authors.

      • Avatar
        brenmcg  July 21, 2019

        Does he accept markan priority? If he believes in biblical inerrancy he couldnt accept the reasons given for MP.

        • Bart
          Bart  July 22, 2019

          I don’t know. But I do know people who believe in inerrancy who think Matthew and Luke used Mark, under the guidance of teh Holy Spirit.

  6. Avatar
    mathieu  July 19, 2019

    I always have a bit of skepticism about people who call themselves “Scientist” and who also believe in god. To me, Scientists must always follow the facts, no matter where they lead, and people who believe in god ignore the facts and follow their emotions. If they don’t follow the facts, always, they are either going against their nature as scientists or they aren’t scientists at their core. I think of that as hypocrisy and I don’t therefore, trust their scientific achievements (non-scientists can believe anything they want as long as they don’t force me to join in; it’s only people who call themselves scientists I have a problem with). I know you don’t quite feel the same way, at least you aren’t as rigid (harsh) about it as I am. I’d be interested in you addressing the issue sometime: How can a someone be a person-of-reason and still believe in god?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 21, 2019

      I think it’s important that “reason” comes in many, many forms, and what is common sense to one person is not to another. There’s nothing in the actual definition of reason that requires a person to be an atheist. How could there be, when most of our greatest intellectuals have believed in a superior being?

  7. Avatar
    ddecker54  July 19, 2019

    Very well stated. And I think that you have absolutely nailed the most frustrating perspective of “debating” apologists in that they cloak their positions in the guise of a methodical, scientific, historical analysis and then revert to anything and everything but. I’ll never understand why they cling to the idea of the Bible’s infallibility so strongly. If you care to believe in the Jewish-Christian god, then fine – it’s your choice. But please don’t try and argue with me based upon your own curious beliefs about a book written centuries ago by people who we know nothing about other than they wondered where the sun went at night.

  8. Avatar
    RICHWEN90  July 19, 2019

    You made me think of epicycles in regard to fundamentalist thinking– you can have an earth centered solar system if you are willing to ignore some data, and be willing to create a sufficiently convoluted ad hoc system to support the data you have. And so the method of epicycles allowed one to predict the positions of the planets with reasonable accuracy when an earth-centered “universe” was dogma, but the system was complex and convoluted, and it would have been impossible under that system to have a unified theory of planetary motion– you’d never have a theory of gravity, for instance. Not even the simple Newtonian version. And so committed believers like the guy you debated have committed themselves to an ad hoc irrational and inconsistent approach to history, even very, very ancient history (paleontology, geology). Their epicyclic systems allow them to deal with any bit of data that conflicts with the core postulate, that the Bible is perfect and literally true and contains no error. But the world they create in this way is completely crazy. No other word for it: nuts. At some point we might have to find a classification for fundamentalism in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, and start treating these people! They’d be even tougher to treat than Borderline Personality Disorder. But I really believe that we should start viewing fundamentalists as displaying a mental health or cognitive disorder.

  9. Avatar
    Truncated  July 19, 2019

    As a former fundamentalist, I always thought of faith as belief in what you new to be true, similar to the laws of gravity. I believed the Bible, because it looked true: It accurately reflects a lot of truth about the human condition, if everyone loved others as themselves the world would be a wonderful place, humility is preferable to arrogance, etc. And to top it off, the most devout protestant cultures were the most wealthy & peaceful. See the evidence supports it!

    I was willing to believe the resurrection and all the wonderful things that come with it because of all the other “evidence” that I felt supported Christianity to be true. So true I was willing to believe in Hell (but with a really big hope I was somehow wrong). But after reading your books, the evidence against inerrancy overwhelmed all else. Freed to think how the world works without the Bible gluing it all together, I realized all the other truths about the human condition are not falsified simply because I now view the Bible as a human document.

    My questions for you are
    1. Is faith a belief in what you believe is most likely true? (similar to history being what most likely happened)
    2. Do the most ardent believers who can’t be persuaded simply incorporate “evidence” as I once did as more persuasive than what the biblical text actually tells us?
    3. Are those who claim that you must have “eyes of faith” to rightly understand the Bible actually gnostics who must have some secret enlightenment that informs their beliefs?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 21, 2019

      These are all questoins of definition, I think. “Faith” can indeed an agreement with a propositional statement (what you “believe” is true.) It can also mean “trust” or “confidence” (“I believe in you”). And yes, everyone in one sense imagines they are looking at evidence, even if this is hidden from the sight of others.

  10. Avatar
    b.dub3  July 19, 2019

    I guess the short answer to your question (that you already know) is that yes, History is a four-letter word and unfortunately in today’s America, so is Science or any academic discipline that runs the risk of challenging long-held views.

    Regarding your related post from yesterday about why people cling to long-held beliefs that do not alter with age even when faced with a likely truth that does not match, I’ll throw out one other possibility that I do not remember if anyone posited, and that is that maybe they are willingly and knowingly lying even as they face the truth. Some to themselves maybe, and for some, just to others. We don’t like to contemplate the thought that our friends, or at least those that we regularly encounter lie on a daily basis. Some lie about big things, some about very small, but they do…some more than others.

    As they grew up and honestly believed and began to study, write books, teach at Universities and surround their very existence, community and livelihood to the system of belief they grew up with, but slowly began to encounter the possibility that some of those things might be built on sand, consciously decided at some later point to go ALL IN and for the sake of pride, money and recognition for standing their ground and profiting from it both within their community and on the grand stage of radio debates, etc will say anything, even the most ridiculous, in order to maintain the charade.

    I personally believe that some of the more famous “converts” to evangelical Christianity that have written books and movies about their conversions MIGHT be doing just that (some of whom you’ve debated). The Marjoe Gortner effect. Maybe its because I cannot fathom that humans can be that ridiculously ignorant, but I do think it is at least a possibility for some.

    Keep up the good work in the pursuit of knowledge and the truth and thank you for spurring thought provoking and difficult questions.

  11. epicurus
    epicurus  July 19, 2019

    Reminds me of Walter Martin and his “Kindom of The Cults” Book. He could rip everyone else to shreds, but wouldn’t apply that same level of critical thought to his own Christian beliefs.

  12. epicurus
    epicurus  July 19, 2019

    There is an interesting 3 star review of William’s book at Amazon by a Phelps Gates, with one of many interesting parts being:
    “This book does not argue for the strong (and easy-to-refute) inerrantist position that the gospels are true, without errors. It makes a much weaker claim (p. 120), namely that the gospels can be “rationally trusted.” What does this mean? Williams is a little vague. Certainly the gospels contain facts which only the most extreme of skeptics deny, such as that Jesus existed and was executed around the year 30. But which things in the gospel actually happened and which did not? Williams never gives a firm answer.”

    • Bart
      Bart  July 21, 2019

      My sense is that it’s because he thinks that there can’t be any mistakes of any kind in the Bible, but he knows if he says this he will not be seen as academically respectable.

  13. Avatar
    ksgm34  July 19, 2019

    I’m loving these posts! (And as a History teacher I of course love history and hope I bring it alive for at least some of my students – no excuse for history to be boring as far as I’m concerned!).

    Peter’s book doesn’t sound like one I want to own at this stage in my life but I really look forward to reading your future posts in response to it. When I was a Christian I used to read books like that a fair bit. Of course it’s been suggested that apologetics is written for people who already believe. And there’s the question of why God would need to depend on apologists anyway! Why make it so hard to believe? If Christianity’s claims are true then there ought to be abundant evidence for them – our eternal destinies are supposedly at stake, after all! Perhaps Christians think it’s some kind of test of faith. I don’t know what to do with that because it’s not compatible with my understandings of love and goodness. Nor do I see why faith in this sense would so important to a god anyway.

    How do you think Peter would respond to your post here, Bart?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 21, 2019

      I don’t know — but he’s on the blog, and so maybe will!

      • Avatar
        justyn  August 14, 2019

        Since it is relatively short I’d like to try reading Peter’s book, if I have the time. I’ve read an overview of each of the chapters.

        I would be particularly interested in reading Bart’s responses to the points made in it.

  14. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  July 19, 2019

    All good points. Why aren’t they persuasive to all who read them? Hmm? I once wrote a summary of about a dozen of your trade books and enthusiastically distributed it widely hoping for feedback that would modify my understanding of the world. I was amazed at the responses I got back, even from atheists. A whole lot of anger and dogmatic certainty. Clearly, this discussion is very, very important, but I think the bottom line is that humans are an amazing species, but are not completely reasonable and rational and often make things up and then fervently believe what they have made up in order to get them through the dark times. A lot of times, with the human species, emotion is more powerful than reason. Isn’t this the underlying premise that gave birth to psychoanalysis?

  15. Avatar
    jhbaker731  July 19, 2019

    Even Paul said to be a “Berean” and make sure the scriptures were true. As an evangelical Christian for 52 years who “gave it al”, learning Christian history led to my deconstruction. I understand now why I was not taught any of it in the Southern Baptist Church. I am learning that some Christians can the most flagrant liars around (not all … I know)

  16. Avatar
    forthfading  July 19, 2019

    Dr. Ehrman,

    I am glad you had a “discussion ” with Dr. Williams on this topic. As I mentioned before, the type of book he wrote were the kinds I memorized in order to refute scary schloars like yourself. But because of your rationale, demeanor, and whit, I was able to see the arguments not as a crusher of faith or hope but as a testament to truth and honesty. Keep up the good work.

    How does a scholar so committed to faith become so prominent in the field? It seems counterintuitive to honest scholarship. Basically, how do you really trust that person’s commitment to scholarship?

    Thanks, Jay

    • Bart
      Bart  July 21, 2019

      I suppose by evaluating his or her work. Peter’s technical studies in Syriac are top-rate, e.g.

  17. Avatar
    lutherh  July 19, 2019

    This general topic is my obsession in recent years. Raised in the Missouri (Lutheran) Synod and ELS/WELS adjacent, I was taught Biblical infallibility and literalism, but questions overcame faith by my late teens. (I’m now in my early 40s.) Why would we think the Bible is perfect? Because it’s inspired. Why do we think it’s inspired? Because someone pretending to be Paul said so. How did that person define scripture (and since he isn’t even the apostle Paul, why should we care what he said)? He didn’t. What, specifically, does “inspired” mean anyway? (Literal truth? Truth on spiritual matters only? The best possible ideas at the time? Verbatim words from the Holy Spirit?) Questions pile on questions, and the answers seem to be questionable conclusions of faith piled upon questionable conclusions of faith.

    Combining this with Dr. Ehrman’s previous post, for many religious people, it comes down to tradition, and that tradition (at least in my childhood church) was conflated with actual knowledge of reality. The leap of faith seemed a bigger and bigger leap the more I looked at it. And it also seemed like a pointless leap, a leap in the wrong direction.

  18. Avatar
    fishician  July 19, 2019

    It really is irrational to accept a book, any book, as absolutely true without subjecting it to the same critical evaluation you use in all other areas of life, but hard to convince believers of this. Not just fundie Christians. Mormons won’t question their book but instead trust “the burning in the breast” as they call it. Many Muslims accept the Quran as absolutely true without question. Religion has a strange and powerful effect on otherwise clear minds, although I and many others have been able to work our way out of such thought processes, so its power is not absolute.

  19. Avatar
    NTDeist  July 19, 2019

    Excellent post!

  20. Avatar
    Hon Wai  July 19, 2019

    I had a chat with Peter Williams a decade ago, at a day seminar held at a conservative evangelical church in London, where two other bona fide evangelical scholars, Simon Gathercole of Cambridge University and Dirk Jongkind (Tyndale House) delivered talks. The theme was largely a popular presentation of elements of Richard Bauckham’s “Jesus & the eyewitnesses”, and a contrast of apocryphal gospels versus the canonical gospels. I asked Peter whether textual and historical analysis of the gospels was a double-edged sword (i.e. it shows there is both reliable history as well as unreliable fiction in the gospels). It was one of the early events that confirmed my view that evangelical apologists often present views in their talks to lay audience which they would not in their scholarly works, and they often deliberately omit materials and arguments inimical to the evangelical worldview, but which are widely known in academic circles. From listening to talks and chatting with evangelical apologists over the years, I have learnt they often expend a great deal of effort attacking positions which nobody is defending, in order to make the Christian/evangelical worldview appear superior in eyes of their evangelical lay audience – be in concerning evolution, morality, the Bible, other religions, cosmology. In the end, these apologists end up short changing their followers.

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