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Jeff Siker Part 2: Why I am a Christian (and yet a New Testament scholar): A Blast From the Past

This is re-post of an interesting set of comments from exactly four years ago by my friend and colleague Jeff Siker, a New Testament scholar who agrees with most of the critical views I have of the New Testament but who is still a believing and practicing Christian. This is part 2.  To make fullest sense of this post, you should read it in conjunction with the one from yesterday.

Jeff Siker is the author of Jesus, Sin, and Perfection in Early Christianity, Liquid Scripture: The Bible in the Digital World and Homosexuality and Religion: An Encyclopedia.



Like Bart I became interested in pursuing an academic career, but with some grounding in the life of the church.  And so after my BA and MA (Religious Studies) at Indiana University, I went off to Yale Divinity School.  And so my trajectory from Young Life in high school to Indiana to Yale was rather different from Bart’s trajectory from Moody to Wheaton to Princeton.  Whereas much of Bart’s education involved the study and practice of Christian apologetics (being able to defend one’s faith and challenge others – akin to Josh McDowell’s then very popular Evidence that Demands a Verdict, which I had also studied along the way), my own Christian faith involved a much less strident and argumentative approach to defending the truth of the Bible.  I began to understand significant differences in the New Testament as different perspectives that did not necessarily have to be reconciled to each other (anathema for those who believe the Bible is internally consistent in every regard).  At Indiana University the study of religion did not include a confessional approach.  Courses on the Bible stressed historical and literary contexts, including the history of interpretation across different approaches to Scripture (e.g., the Alexandrians vs. the Antiochenes regarding the matter of allegory).  Truth claims about faith grounded in Scripture was not part of my academic study.  There was certainly a challenge to integrate what I was learning in the classroom with my developing faith life, which was nurtured in the mainstream tradition of Protestant liberalism.

This integration continued at Yale Divinity School and after my ordination (PCUSA) in my two years as a pastor to a small church in rural Michigan.  At Yale I also grew familiar with the various movements of liberation theology in addition to classic Protestant theology.  In retrospect I would say that increasingly I came to see my understanding of biblical interpretation as a conversation between the biblical authors and modern faith in seeking to discern God’s presence and the leading of God’s Spirit in both personal faith and the life of the church. Not only was this a rich conversation between modern and ancient communities of faith, it was a banquet of conversations that involved all of church history and hundreds of biblical commentators across the ages.  This understanding only grew deeper during the Ph.D. program at Princeton Theological Seminary.

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Pressing Jeff Siker for Answers: An Intriguing Query and Response
Why He Is Still a Christian (And a Biblical Scholar): A Blast From the Past



  1. talmoore
    talmoore  January 29, 2017

    Speaking of Yale, Dr. Ehrman, would it be possible to get a similar account from Dale Martin, who not only is a critical scholar who still believes, but it also an openly gay man? I’m curious what his journey has been, especially how much push back he gets from fundamentalists and evangelicals who believe he’s a thorough-going sinner.

    • Bart
      Bart  January 30, 2017

      I’ve tried before, to no avail. But I’ll ask him again.

      • Avatar
        Pattycake1974  January 30, 2017

        I second that. Dale Martin would be great as a guest poster.

        • Bart
          Bart  January 31, 2017

          Yeah, I’ve asked and he’s just not interested in doing it — mainly because he’s just written an entire book on the topic!

          • Avatar
            Pattycake1974  January 31, 2017

            Even more of a reason to post. If he copied/pasted an excerpt from his book then it might entice people to buy it. Just sayin!

          • Avatar
            Crossdal  February 1, 2017

            What is the name of his book?

          • Bart
            Bart  February 4, 2017

            Biblical Truths.

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    stokerslodge  January 29, 2017

    Thank you for posting this Bart, it’s very interesting.

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    Wilusa  January 29, 2017

    I’m happy for Prof. Siker, because *he’s* obviously happy with his life and faith…and still tolerant of those who don’t believe as he does.

    But I admit I find it hard to understand people being so obsessed with Christianity, in the first place, that they devote their lives to studying it. When I was still quite young, I decided there was no good reason for believing in the existence of a supernatural Being separate from and superior to ourselves. Given that, I didn’t have to think about the merits of specific theistic religions. But when I later did, with a mild interest, I was surprised to learn how shaky the foundation of Christianity really is.

    This would strike most Catholics as shocking. But I’m glad I was raised Catholic, for two reasons. When I was in high school, a priest gave us the *methodology* for arriving at belief: *first* become convinced of the existence of God (as I eventually didn’t), *then* of the “correct” religion (for him, Christianity), and finally, the “correct” denomination (for him, Catholicism). And I found Catholicism so unpleasant that I had no regrets in walking away from it.

    • Bart
      Bart  January 30, 2017

      Fair enough! But in higher education people are obsessed by all sorts of things they want to study without “believing in” them! Shakespeare, Marx, Freud, capitalism, Aristotle, Nietzsche, Hitler, James Ussher — the list is in extremely long! Nothing wrong with waniting to study Christianity! (Or Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Shinto, Confucionism, Hinduism, and and and)

    • talmoore
      talmoore  January 30, 2017

      Wilusa, I’ve studied most of the major religious, and I’m an atheist. I don’t believe any of it. Why? Because studying religion is an excellent window in to the human psyche. When Jesus (purportedly) says “Love your enemies” and The Buddha (purportedly) says “Love conquers hate” you know there’s something deeper going on in the human mind.

    • Avatar
      Petter Häggholm  January 30, 2017

      On the one hand, I too find it hard to understand that degree of obsession.

      On the other hand, here we are, both of us, paying for the privilege of reading the blog of a Bible scholar, reading his books (I think I’ve read about half of Bart’s books…and I think that’s a lot of reading), and generally interesting ourselves in it.

      And then I also think about all the hours I’ve spent reading, and re-reading, and re-re-50-re-reading The Lord of the Rings, and The Silmarillion, and four versions of the Narn i Chîn Húrin (or The Tale of the Children of Húrin if you prefer the English title to the Sindarin Elvish)…and I start to understand obsessions a little. And I’m not even that Tolkien crazy: I know of one Norwegian atheist who has translated the New Testament from Greek into Quenya Elvish:¹ probably the nerdiest thing I’ve ever heard of, which I admire while having no desire to replicate. And I’ve NEVER believed in the reality of Arda.

      ¹ http://folk.uib.no/hnohf/nqnt.htm; you might also enjoy Genesis 1+2 in Quenya tengwar: http://folk.uib.no/hnohf/tgenesis.pdf

    • Avatar
      Pattycake1974  January 30, 2017

      I’m completely obsessed with certain aspects of Christianity, and I’m not even a Christian anymore. It’s almost like a drug. I just can’t stop.

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      turbopro  February 1, 2017

      Your Catholic priest’s methodology is interesting. Likewise, I was raised Catholic by my mom. In my experience though, one of the priests at my high school engaged my doubts philosophically; that was his methodology. And I look back now and am thankful he did. He engaged me to think it through by reading, and by giving all the views an ear–including other religious understandings.

      Alas, none of it was convincing–well, perhaps Gautama tried keeping it real. Today, I continue to read, give an ear, and be open to something that may convince.

      I’ll admit though, that as the intellectuals continue to pore over the sundry texts and tenets of the belief systems, and archaeology unearths enough to question the congruence of those texts, all of these belief systems appear to me to be bollo…, er, hooey.

    • Avatar
      godspell  February 1, 2017

      Belief systems shape the world we live in, and always will. They shape your life, your decisions, whether you admit it to yourself or not. To understand what they are and how they work is a vitally important field of study.

      You think you’ve walked away from belief, but you just walked away from one version of it (and your response here indicates that it still has a hold on you, is still impacting you in a variety of ways–“Once a Catholic”).

      No human can ever avoid believing in things that can’t be proven. It’s one of the universal constants of our existence. But how we respond to it–and which beliefs we choose, to embrace or attack–that can be infinitely varied.

      • Avatar
        Wilusa  February 5, 2017

        I certainly have hypotheses! And “beliefs” to which I “incline,” or “incline strongly.” Also, by now, I flat-out “believe” in the basic concept of reincarnation, because of the strong evidence for it.

        I have a number of essays at FictionPress, where my handle is the same one I use here, Wilusa. Here’s a brief, very recent one that spells out my most important hypotheses:


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    Boltonian  January 29, 2017

    Sounds like wishful thinking to me but, as Hume pointed out, we use reason to justify what our passions (temperament or emotions, as we would say today) dictate.

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    Crossdal  January 29, 2017

    Dr. Ehrman, Thank you for your candidness at MSU this last week. Thank you as well for posting this. I have been very intrigued by what you had to say, and my children are still talking about it. This letter from Mr. Siker has served to confirm my suspicion of how we can agree on so much, and yet, still come to different conclusions. I would say my position is somewhere between yours and Siker’s. For reasons I shared with you after class, I have also found myself separated from my church. The quote “Jesus proclaimed the coming of the kingdom of God, but all we got was the church!” resonates with my view of things. Honestly, I do not know why I call myself Christian other than I have no other name for explaining my belief. Also, it is my faith of origin and will therefore always effect my perspective. It is certainly not indicative of any doctrinal belief aside from believing that Christ was in some way an offering of salvation to humanity, that it was in fact Christ who has saved me. The details of what that salvation is and what it is from or unto seems to remain ineffable except to say it’s accompanied by an overwhelming conviction to love and not judge others by superficial markers, like race or religion. I have also felt increasingly more driven to understand various religions as fully as possible without having to convert, because I know I could never wholeheartedly convert as long as those religions are not all inclusive or if they would serve to stagnate my beliefs. Considering how young I was (aprox. 5-7 years old) when I was telling grown Pentecostal pastors how little concern I had for their tradition of not letting women be pastors while also telling them I wanted to study God and be a pastor when I grew up (I used their scriptures to debate their doctrine and they did concede) my ability to question my church on these foundational issues is no surprise. I am also fairly certain this combination of seeing some truths within the story of Christ as it has been recorded and conveyed to me as well as my ability to question the absurd, even hypocritical, within the communally lived out aspects of my religion could lead me to share a view between yours and your friends.

    Then toss in an awareness of how so many religions hold similarities, as if the biggest difference is just the narratives and doctrines that arise from them, and here I am. (Distinctly different and yet the same?) My personal opinion about any religion, and any other set of opposing groups, is that they are all in some ways correct and in some ways wrong. The task of one seeking truth should therefore be to sort out the strands of each and form belief according to what shows itself to be true. For example, the truth of a metaphor can be found in the principles it conveys.

    I appreciate the opportunity to access your blog. I look very forward to learning more. Seeing as I have already been so candid on a semi public forum I should probably let everyone know a bit about me. I am a senior undergrad at MSU college of Arts and Letters and I am working on an interdisciplinary degree in philosophy, psychology, and world religions. Prior to transferring to MSU I attended Lansing Community College and Kellogg Community College. In my early twenties I attended a local bible training institute meant to prepare students for ministry. I left due to differences, I have since been completely cut off from that community due to similar differences. That is why I leave them unnamed, out of respect for their right to hold their position without judgment even if I strongly disagree with it, and this is a semi public forum where they are not present to defend themselves. In my youth I was enrolled in the local public schools where I began my career in ditching somewhere round the 6th grade. Instead of attending classes I would go to the park and read my text books, or any other book I had, in peace and quiet. Again, thank you for this opportunity to learn more. I am admittedly at the beginning of this journey from the academic perspective. I hope I have not been to forward.

  6. Avatar
    drussell60  January 29, 2017

    Interesting testimony indeed. Jeff’s point about not having been reared in the more extreme form of historical evangelicalism, like yourself, makes sense regarding his ability to continue believing. Conservative evangelicalism and fundamentalism are squabbling siblings, IMO, and despite the separatist, idiosyncratic characteristics of fundamentalism (1611 KJV, hair length, rock music, yadda, yadda) they are more than close in terms of theology. The theological notions of what one “must” or ought to believe are far more present in the fundygelical subculture as opposed to a less conservative evangelical subculture, hence, when someone breaks from the more dogmatic form of the religion, it tends to be more dramatic (due to the realization that the certainties you’ve accepted are themselves built upon sand) The problem I have in believing the “story” is in what appears to be a credibility issue with Jesus (or at least the Jesus that was fabricated within the last 2,000 years). I would love to say I am a Christian were it not for the reality that the Jesus I am supposed to embrace made promises that simply did not come to pass. Mark 9:1 – “….there are some of you standing here who will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come with power; In Mark 14:61-62 (and Matthew 26:26:63-64) Jesus is asked by the high priest if he is the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed one, and Jesus responds, “I am, and you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the power and coming and coming with the clouds of heaven.” Matthew 24 – This generation shall not pass, etc. These are but a few examples that demonstrate a Jesus who never returned when he said he would return (major credibility issue). I’m curious to know if any of this grinds on Jeff as well. Maybe it just grinds on those of us who were a part of a subculture that absolutised these stories despite the unfulfilled promises from the guy at the center of it all.

    BTW, nice seeing/hearing you at MSU the other night. It was a great talk. Thanks for signing my copy of How Jesus Became God.

  7. Avatar
    Stephen  January 29, 2017

    While I prefer Jeff Siker’s point of view to that of fundamentalists like Franklin Graham and wholeheartedly wish his p.o.v. dominated Christian discourse I still have problems with his views.

    In this universe in which we find ourselves what evidence is there that a god even exists?

    Most people accept the religious beliefs of their culture and their family. But with all the multitudinous systems of belief in this wide world what are the chances that we just happened to be born into the right one? Our conceptions of deity seem so time bound and culture bound. What reason do we have to think they are anything else? The Bible is clearly a product of human creativity and I’m glad many Christians have accepted this but what reason is there to think it is anything else?

    I do not require total understanding. We don’t fully understand gravity but we see its effects. We don’t fully understand quantum physics but we can make super accurate predictions based on the math. We don’t understand dark matter but we can detect it by its effects.

    Where are the “effects” of a god?

    I have to have faith? Well no I don’t. Just some compelling reason to think any of it is true in the first place.

  8. Avatar
    Alfred  January 29, 2017

    There are ways, some seen here, of philosphising away the ‘problem of pain’. But it works only with people, and only if you assert the claim of eternal life for them. It does not explain the problem of pain in the animal world, or, alternatively, why a God worthy of our respect would have inflicted all that pain on non-sentient beings because of the sin of humans.

  9. Avatar
    ffg  January 29, 2017

    I am not sure I follow the Jeff Siker’s arguments at all. He offers no new insights in terms of how he changed his Christian beliefs in order to hold onto faith in God. Really dissapointing for someone as learned as he is. I am more persuaded by someone like John Shelby Spong who admits that he does not believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus and the Virgin birth, but instead sees Jesus life as an expression of who he believes God is. In essence Spong calls from a move away from theism to seeing God as more of a transcendent ground of Being as Spong puts it. You can disagree with Spong but I find his theology congruent as opposed to Peter Enns who believes in evolution but somehow still believes in the fall and eternal redemption through Jesus. I am sorry, Siker owes us a more coherent explanation of his faith, I am really annoyed at what seems to be an emotional argument put forward by a biblical scholar.

    • Bart
      Bart  January 30, 2017

      I’m not sure he owes us *anything*!!

      • Avatar
        ffg  January 31, 2017

        I did not mean it in that sense. My point is around holding oneself out as a biblical critical scholar who still holds a traditional view of Christianity yet offers no “bridge” to help the rest of us understand how that is possible.

        • Bart
          Bart  February 1, 2017

          I suppose in part it depends on what you mean by a “traditional” view.

  10. Avatar
    Stylites  January 29, 2017

    And so by different paths, you both meet at the 25th chapter of Matthew.

    • Bart
      Bart  January 30, 2017

      Yup, pretty much!

    • Avatar
      drussell60  January 31, 2017

      Is there any better place to meet up? My wife and I take turns reading aloud Matthew 25:31-46 every night before we hit the hay. It’s the crux of the Gospel.

  11. Avatar
    Raemon  January 29, 2017


    Prof. Sikes writes “Why do I still believe, even knowing the same historical-critical information that Bart knows?” To be clear on what it is that he does believe, I asked him and he very graciously answered. He does not believe the Nicene Creed, he does not believe in the Trinity or that Jesus is God, he does not believe Jesus’ death redeemed mankind and (if I understand him correctly) he does not believe in Jesus’ bodily resurrection. Yet he considers himself a Christian because he appreciates Jesus as one of those iconic examples of altruism and public rebellion against opposition, an example of faith that God will make everything alright … life from death, possibility from impossibility. By this definition, it seems you might consider yourself a “Christian” after all … except for your inconvenient agnosticism. Prof. Sikes does still believe that God exists.

    • Bart
      Bart  January 30, 2017

      Not quite, on all counts. See today’s post.

    • Avatar
      ffg  January 31, 2017

      Thank you, this is what I was hoping to hear from his testimony and I think it is really important for these nuances to be understoood as part of his journey.

    • Avatar
      webattorney  February 1, 2017

      I must say even liberal Christians will not consider him a Christian. I think he identifies himself as a Christian but 99% of Christians will probably not consider him a Christian. I say this as an agnostic.

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    Tempo1936  January 29, 2017

    Heard a new fundamentalist claim … since God is the creator, then God would not put anything unscientific in the Bible . Everything in the Bible is to be taken literally, including the 7 day creation, young earth and a complete rejection of evolution. This from a highly educated professional. Amazing ?

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    SidDhartha1953  January 29, 2017

    Prof. Siker, do you agree or disagree with Prof. Ehrman’s account of Jesus’s understanding of himself, i.e. that he was chosen by God to rule an earthly Kingdom of heaven after a divine Son of Man had destroyed all his (God’s) enemies? If you agree, how do you reconcile the fact that things did not turn out at all as Jesus expected? In what sense could his faith have survived the realization, at some point during his final ordeal, that God was not going to rescue him, in this life at least, and in what sense could he have been the divine son of God if he was so grossly mistaken?

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    dragonfly  January 29, 2017

    “My reading of the ministry of Jesus is that he trusted in such a God, even to the point of death.”
    I wonder if Jesus felt betrayed by God in the end?
    “Eli Eli Lama Sabachthani”

    • Bart
      Bart  January 30, 2017

      I think he does in Mark’s version of the story!

      • Avatar
        dragonfly  February 2, 2017

        It’s funny how we put such a high value on blindly trusting a god who is untrustworthy.

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    mreichert  January 29, 2017

    It seems to me that being a believer or a non-believer has much more to do with emotion than any type of analysis. People (and all animals) are attracted to those things that make them feel good and repelled by those things that make them feel bad. I imagine that someone will have their “come to Jesus” moment when they hear or read things like “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son…” Beautiful words for many people though they have no “feel good” impact on me. On the other hand, when some of us find out the Bible is not inerrant as we have been led to believe, this revelation (or some other dis-enchanting experience) really effects us negatively and we turn away from Christian beliefs. For other people that negative feeling is not that strong so has little impact on their beliefs. It appears that Jeff Siker has the “feel good” associated with Christian teachings but not the negative feelings associated with feeling deceived. Bart seems to have had both the good feelings and then the bad feelings associated with Bible studies.

    I have never had a “feel good” moment from any kind of spiritual message, so I cannot say what that may be like. But I imagine it must be like falling in love. You meet some one you are attracted to, you enjoy some good conversation or laughter or other thing that really feels good, then you are ready to spend the rest of your life with that person. Rationality becomes of secondary importance compared to the good feeling, in spite of all warnings from friends and relatives. The feeling good part of being in love is clung to for as long as possible, maybe for life, though it is too often superseded by some negative aspect of the relationship resulting in break-up.

    This comparison of feeling in love to “feels right” spiritual devotion is my own thought. You folks on the blog feel free to tell me if I am wrong about this.

    I have often wondered about the Apostle Paul’s conversion from persecutor of Christians to a primary recruiter of the faith. But in one of Bart’s lectures it came clear to me. Here was this guy trying to figure out how Jesus could be anyone’s savior when he was apparently cursed by being hung from a tree (crucified) although he committed no sin worth of execution. When he came to his own thought that Jesus must have died for everyone else’s sins, what a “feel good” moment that must have been. The emotion must have been quite fantastic and turned him into the apostle he became. Whether or not he had a vision of Jesus, he certainly had his “come to Jesus” moment.

    I read Wilusa’s response from Part one, about children being dragged to church when they don’t want to go, and wondering why adults go to church if they don’t have to. Well, with the adults I know there may be some sense of obligation to go to church but mostly they go because it “feels good”. And if it feels good to the adult, it should feel good to the children they drag along, and other adults they try to talk into going. The problem here is that people are not very good at knowing what feels good to them does not necessarily feel good to their children or other people.

  16. Avatar
    jlparris  January 29, 2017

    I think Prof. Siker nails it. I have seen all too often the quick trip former fundamentalists make to atheism with a short stop at liberal Christianity, when exposed to modern biblical scholarship. I wish he could explain more what he means by “ridiculously wonderful.”

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    bensonian  January 30, 2017

    Interesting journey. I wonder if Dale Martin went down a similar path as Siker.

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    Jolaporte  January 30, 2017

    Bonjour Bart,
    Je suis français. j’ai découvert votre blog il y a quelques mois. J’ai été enthousiasmé par votre travail. J’ai donc lu 6 de vos ouvrages et importé tous les blogs (ne comportant pas de vidéos). J’ai envie d’approfondir certains thèmes, par exemple celui concernant les femmes (Peter Paul and Mary etc… et de nombreux blogs sur ce sujet).
    J’ai une question précise pour laquelle je n’ai pas encore trouvé de réponse. J’ai sans doute raté la page, car il y a tellement d’informations ! et c’est tellement nouveau pour moi. Voici ma question:
    Elle concerne “La Prière du Seigneur” (Matthieu 6 et Luc 11) J’utilise la version de “La Bible de Jerusalem”, mais aussi un “Novum Testamentum Graece et Latine” . Comment faut-il considérer cette prière (les versions de Matthieu et Luc sont différentes (Q?) ?
    Plus précisément, j’ai toujours étonné par cette curieuse et présomptueuse demande :
    “Remets-nous nos dettes COMME nous-mêmes avons remis à nos débiteurs…” (Matthieu)
    “Remets-nous nos péchés CAR nous-mêmes remettons à quiconque nous doit” (Luc)
    Le “Notre Père” français, de son côté dit: “Pardonne-nous nos offenses COMME nous pardonnons à ceux qui nous ont offensés”.
    Conclusion: on demande à Dieu d’être aussi bons et généreux que nous (humains) nous le sommes !
    C’est quand même bizarre !

    • Bart
      Bart  January 30, 2017

      Many thanks. And yes, now that you mention it, it is strange! I think I’ve always interpreted it to me “if we forgive others then please forgive us.” But you’re right, that’s not actually what it says!

      • Avatar
        Wilusa  January 31, 2017

        I don’t understand French, and I’m curious as to what the issue was here! It obviously deals with the part of the “Lord’s Prayer” usually rendered in English as “forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” (I’ve also heard “forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors” – when it’s sung as a hymn.) I’ve always interpreted it the same way you did.

        • Bart
          Bart  February 1, 2017

          The gist: if the Lord’s prayer asks God to forgive us as we have forgiven others (or because we have forgiven others), isn’t this asking God to be at least as ethical and forgiving as we are? Isn’t that kind of strange, that we’d have to ask for God to be ethical and forgiving, using ourselves as the model?

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    RonaldTaska  January 30, 2017

    Wow! Once again I am really impressed by these two posts. I assume Dr. Siker’s views remain pretty much as he described them previously. I don’t feel lied to by my church leaders, but I do feel that my church leaders failed to educate themselves in Introductory Bible History 101 (canonization, textual criticism, historical criticism) which is the least they could have done. They needed to deal with the question of why they quote the Bible before they started quoting it. It’s not good enough to just say it is “the Word of God.” People say all sorts of stuff.

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    ddecker54  January 30, 2017

    “People almost invariably arrive at their beliefs not on the basis of proof but on the basis of what they find attractive.”

    — Blaise Pascal

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