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My Jesus Class and … Destroying Christianity?

My first-year seminar on “Jesus in Scholarship and Film” is going extremely well. Last week I gave the students an exercise comparable to one I mentioned earlier on the infancy narratives of the Gospels; this one was on the passion narratives. They were to read each of the Gospels accounts of Jesus’ trial, death, and resurrection carefully, several times (Matthew 27-28; Mark 15-16; Luke 23-24; John 18-20). Then they were to choose two of the four, and compare them very carefully, noting all the similarities, all the differences, and any apparent discrepancies that they thought in fact could not be reconciled.

As a side note: probably three or four times a week I get an angry note from someone who has read one of my books or heard me give a lecture or listened/watched one of my Great Courses courses, who is upset because I am “trying to destroy Christianity.” I’m always completely baffled by this comment. (I got it yesterday from a retired Episcopalian priest; I would think an Episcopalian cleric would be the *last* person to think I was trying to destroy Christianity!) I’m baffled by this because in fact I’m completely *sympathetic* with Christianity and with thinking Christians. What I’m *against* is a fundamentalism that advocates the strict and literal interpretation of the Bible as without error and a guide to all of our beliefs and actions (like opposing abortion, prohibiting gay rights, defunding the government, or whatever).

But the other thing that puzzles me is that almost everything I say that is taken to be an “attack” on Christianity simply involves facts that anyone can see for themselves. I’m not the one who *made up* the idea that the Gospels are at odds with one another on crucial points. All you have to do is read the Bible carefully yourself and you’ll see it for yourself. I haven’t *invented* a single discrepancy in the Bible. The discrepancies are simply *there*; anyone can find them. All they have to do is *LOOK*, with an open mind.

 

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Comments

  1. PersephoneK  October 16, 2013

    I overall agree with your analysis, however, as an apostate Christian myself, who largely left the faith because of the Bible’s discrepancies and errors and conflicts with known history, I struggle to understand Christians who choose to remain with the faith once those issues are exposed. I do understand finding the beauty in the Bible as a literary collection of documents, and I love learning Bible history, etc, but to continue the faith…. I just find it difficult to understand. To me its the equivalent of burying one’s head in the sand. For me, once I lost the ability to trust the Bible’s inerrancy, the whole faith was a house of cards.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  October 17, 2013

      It all depends on whether Christainity if faith in the Bible or faith in God through Christ. Not the same thing!

      • PersephoneK  October 17, 2013

        I agree they’re not the same thing, but for me, what study of the Bible and history has done is make it emphatically clear that these were stories created by men. You don’t even need the Bible to have faith in “god” by the standards of “God through Christ” because again, how does one really know what that is if the Bible cannot be trusted? After I left Christianity, I flirted with other religions for a while. I understand the human need for spirituality, but with my new standards of following logical conclusions and using reason, I was never able to find a faith that met the burden of credibility for me. From what I can tell, they are all inventions by men, and therefore, I wouldn’t know what “god” really is in order to follow him.

        • webattorney  November 7, 2013

          Sometimes I wonder if it’s good for me to believe in some religion even if I sort of think that it is an invention of men. Some being created men, and men create religion — to meet the unquenchable yearning for the mystery. I also think that some things are left better as a mystery.

      • webattorney  October 22, 2013

        There are three (at least two) hurdles for me in believing Christianity. One, some kind of God exists: I can buy this since I really have no proof either way — I tend to think being agnostic on this position is reasonable. Second, that this God is a Christian God. Third, Jesus was son of God.

        I never believed that the Bible did not contain any discrepancies within itself, because I tend to focus on the big picture, and it’s understandable that some Books in the Bible contain discrepancies, because after all, when men write down stuff, there are bound to be discrepancies. But one thing I cannot understand is the position that says you cannot “interpret” the words in the Bible, because everything in life is open to interpretation.

        • PersephoneK  October 22, 2013

          True, but couldn’t god have passed along his message to humans in a way that needs no interpretation? Think of all the bloodshed that could have been saved over the millenia all over the world. That is another sticking point for me. Why does a god allow for his most important guidelines to humanity to open to interpretation? Even a good human parent doesn’t do this. Do you tell your kids, “Hey, I have rules, and if you break them, bad things will happen, but I’m going to convey my rules to you in this limerick that has multiple interpretations?” Nope. We just tell our kids, “Don’t do X or Y will happen.”

          • webattorney  October 23, 2013

            Yes, that also.

          • nicholasmolbert  December 15, 2013

            PersephoneK, I don’t think it’s fruitful to talk about God allowing his guidelines to be interpreted. I agree with what you are saying, but I think that modern biblical scholarship has shown that God had little to do with what (and where and how) biblical texts were written. I mean this in the sense that God didn’t move any writer’s hand for them. Think of it more as gospel writers using what source material they had to devise a guidebook for their congregation according to what historical situation they were in. Matthew’s gospel emphasizes “fear” words and includes many of the parables in Mark but with a twist to allegorize the congregation’s relationship to the church and the church’s relationship to Christ. Also, you can see the writers of the Hebrew Bible doing the same thing; especially when evaluating which sections were written by J, which were written by P, etc. Then look at the historical and societal status in which each writer was writing. The texts begin to make A LOT more sense. But as you said, it is very hard to separate culture and history from the creation of texts – but I think we make it too easy for ourselves to simply make the statement “man created God.” One of the most influential poets of all time, Amiri Baraka, said, “God came from slavery, heaven from real estate.” It’s no coincidence that what we think of as the major world religions sprang up in times of strife. My professor once told me, when we were studying the life of the patriarchal Jacob in the OT, that the Hebrew Bible shows us what it means to be human, and THAT is how the Bible should be used for children’s pedagogy – because Jacob wasn’t the best person in the BIble, and neither was David! Interesting stuff!

        • trueandreasonable  May 29, 2014

          Those are good questions webattorney.

          I tend to look at this pragmatically.

          There either is a God or there is not. If not our moral beliefs are likely the product of evolution and therefore completely unreliable. (Richard Joyce is a philosopher who spells this argument out)

          If our moral beliefs are unreliable then it is no morally bad thing to believe whatever we want including God. If a Creator God exists our moral beliefs are likely reliable. But even though they are somewhat reliable its clear they still need guidance. We can look at lots of people who lacked or didn’t follow the guidance and did evil.

          If our moral sense needs guidance from God then where can we get that guidance? Jesus might seem a slim hope but he actually seems the best candidate for being a good guide. But again here reasonable people can disagree. Some people think others religions offer the best prospect for God’s guidance.

          I think Jesus is the best option because of the historical evidence of miracles. The evidence might not be what we all hope for. But it does seem better than the historical evidence of miracles from other religions.

  2. fishician  October 16, 2013

    Amen!

  3. Adam0685  October 16, 2013

    Many probably can’t see the discrepancies for the same reason you couldn’t before you did your class on Mark at PTS. I couldn’t see them for many years because my view of the Bible as 1000% accurate blinded me to them.

    • Adam0685  October 16, 2013

      I should add that those who think that Bart is making up these discrepancies–or that only he and a few others really hold to them, I would suggest they attend a class on the gospels at a typical seminary, divinity school, or a public university. I took a course on the gospels, then semester long courses on just Matthew, just Mark, just Luke, and just John. Each were individual courses just focusing on one gospel. Any reader who reads them carefully on their own terms will see the differences and patterns of redaction. It`s common knowledge.

  4. Steefen  October 16, 2013

    Bart Ehrnman:
    …probably three or four times a week I get an angry note from someone who has read one of my books or heard me give a lecture or listened/watched one of my Great Courses courses, who is upset because I am “trying to destroy Christianity.” I’m always completely baffled by this comment.

    Steefen:

    Christianity cannot be destroyed. It can be ruined. Second, there are places where it does not stand up to the test of time. Third, it can be improved. Fourth, the New Testament and the Catholic Church can be shown to be lacking: how can you have a New Testament about Salvation and Feeding 5,000 and the New Testament fails to mention Queen Helena and King Izas (if Izates can be shortened to Izas) who saved and fed all of Jerusalem during the famine of 47 C.E. Why isn’t Queen Helena, a contemporary of Jesus, Saint Helena?

    I, the author of The Greatest Bible Study in Historical Accuracy, “nail my thesis” to the door of the Catholic Church and the Eastern Church/es : Queen Helena and King Izas must earn Sainthood (if they are not Mary and Jesus, already because Izates was his father’s “only begotten son” and Mary was known for her holiness; for, after she converted to Judaism, she earned her title of Holy Mother by being a Nazarite for not seven years but fourteen years).

    Bart spoke of a conspiracy on his post about a week ago. The conspiracy goes like this: follow the money and the power and you find the Roman Church nurtured by Vespasian. Basically, Josephus and Vespasian are very important partners with regards to Rome’s Jewish problem. Vespasian allows Josephus to save the Hebrew Scriptures from the Temple under destruction during the Revolt. Josephus also sees a biblical crucifixion tableau and gets Rome to allow him to take the three men down. One survives crucifixion. After the revolt, relatives of Izates seek clemency from Rome for being rebels against Rome. This would be the reason why the Roman Church has its reasons for not sainting them: they were Jewish purists whose family tree rebelled against Rome. (Rome took Helena’s Temple gift of a golden candlestick.)

    Wouldn’t the New Testament and the pantheon of saints be improved by celebrating Queen Mother Helena and King Izates for their majority role in saving Jerusalem from starvation?

    As for Bart’s claim of not making fun of Christianity and trying to destroy Christianity, I ask him to please explain how can a star be good for guidance when traveling by sea but not by traveling by land?

  5. SJB  October 16, 2013

    Prof Ehrman

    Did the gospel writers themselves mean for us to take their accounts literally? Did the writer of Mark mean for his audience to think everything he wrote actually happened? If so when modern Christians don’t take the gospels literally aren’t they in fact “writing their own gospel”?

    If the gospel writers didn’t mean for the audience to take their work literally what were their intentions? Is it possible they were making use of their creative imaginations when they wrote the gospels and doing it consciously?

    I realize it’s hard enough to tell what another person is thinking when they’re sitting across the table much less across the millenia but given the time and depth of study in which you’ve engaged would you care to speculate?

    Thanks

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  October 17, 2013

      Yes, I assume the Gospels writers were not writing allegories, but thought their books were historical descriptions of what happened. To interpret their books means to see what they, each one of them individually, thought happened and what each one of them, individually, understood the *meaning* of those events to be. That’s what critical scholarship tries to do. (As opposed to readers who simply assume that every Gospel is saying the same thing)

      • bholly72  October 17, 2013

        I think that each of the gospel authors did his best to put together the Jesus stories that he knew, but I doubt that any of them would regard his gospel as inerrant.

  6. nichael  October 16, 2013

    This is wandering a bit off topic from the standard historical/scholarly tone of this ‘blog, but with regard to the charge that simply acknowledging the obvious and clear facts of the NT is somehow “harming Christianity”, here are a couple of points.

    First, if one decides to take the NT seriously, then trying to understand exactly what the NT says, and how it says it, would seem to be nothing more than simply the first steps in that direction.

    But more to the point, when asked to name the “greatest commandment” Jesus of course said “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with *all your mind*”.

    It seems clear to me that if one chooses to take seriously the teaching of Jesus –and that would seem to be the central definition of what it means to be Christian– then one has little choice but to take exactly this view.

    • willow  November 7, 2013

      “It seems clear to me that if one chooses to take seriously the teaching of Jesus –and that would seem to be the central definition of what it means to be Christian– then one has little choice but to take exactly this view.”

      nichael, my sentiments, exactly.

  7. cheito
    cheito  October 16, 2013

    Historical: if the Gospels contain discrepancies, then they cannot all be historically correct. One of them may be, or none of them may be, but they cannot *all* be because they are at odds with each other. (Just as two eyewitnesses of a crime cannot both be right if they really do – not just apparently, but really – contradict each others accounts). And that means that we need to devise methods for getting behind the literary accounts of the Gospels to figure out what really happened in Jesus’ life and death.

    DR Ehrman:

    ‘I agree that one of the Gospels may be, or none of them may be, historically accurate, as you stated’.

    However I think there are various reasons why the ‘canonical’ Gospels are contradictory. The primary reason, as I understand it, is that not all the authors of the Gospels were eye-witnesses. I believe the tradition That Mathew the Apostle wrote Matthew and Mark wrote down Peter’s words is incorrect just as the tradition that Mary never got married or had children after Jesus’ birth is erroneous.

    Discrepancies and differences between the individual narratives is due to the authors credentials or lack thereof and their agenda for writing their accounts. Truth is mingled with myth by those writers whose sources where primarily oral traditions, fabricated stories, and not eye-witnesses accounts.

    Evidently, all four Gospels agree that Jesus was arrested, brought before Pilate, was tried, crucified, died, placed in a tomb, resurrected from the dead, but not all four agree on the details of how these and other events transpired.

    The chronicles of those who were eye-witnesses, and of those who received their sources from those who were eye-witnesses unfortunately have been altered by interpolations and/or omissions.

    So what are we to do? How do we know which Gospel, if any, is reliable historically, and theologically?

    Personally I reject all the Gospels except John. I’m aware that many scholars don’t believe that John is historically plausible. I disagree. If anyone rose from the dead I believe The Jesus of the Gospel of John is the one who did it. As I pointed out, all Gospels agree that Jesus rose from the Dead they just don’t agree on the details of what happened. I receive John’s testimony. That’s how I solved the dilemma!

    Note: I do read Luke and accept many of the reports recorded there but I don’t rely on it. There are also some problems with the latter chapters of John but for the most part I believe its an eye-witness record of what Jesus said and did. I’m not a scholar. I’m a truck driver. This is my own opinion and what I believe.

    I believe God raised Jesus from the dead and I’m happy! :-))

  8. RonaldTaska  October 16, 2013

    This is one of your best posts and is a great example of the posts I really appreciate with emphasis on Gospel discrepancies (why they occur and what they mean) as well as on your personal experiences. I am sorry about the criticism you have received. I received so much criticism for making similar observations in church classes that I found it impossible to continue to attend. I always got the same response, namely that these apparent discrepancies are just different viewpoints which are not actually contradictory. I know better.

    I still think it would be helpful to you (in that it might tone down your critics) and us if you gave some posts illustrating reasonable arguments that a liberal Christian might make, such as oral transmission changed many of the details but it is not unreasonable for Christians to believe that the Resurrection, etc. occurred even if the details of this event got changed. I, myself, think the Resurrection is more likely legend than history, but is there a way to make arguments supporting liberal Christianity? If so, how would you go about it?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  October 17, 2013

      Hmmm. That would be a very long post! I’ll think about it. The main thing is that we live in a different universe from that of the first century, and whatever we believe or think needs to make sense in our world. (where people don’t levitate up to heaven; or get born of virgins; etc.)

    • Ethereal  May 30, 2014

      Same here… Good points

  9. Happydog  October 17, 2013

    I fully agree with your last paragraph above.
    You are providing a valuable insight into the Gospels.
    As a Christian I do not find you “trying to destroy Christianity”. In fact you are doing the opposite.
    For a very long time now I have not been comfortable with the Churches (which ever one you belong too) view of things.
    In fact, all the various sects today, I believe have come about directly from these discrepancies that you are
    writing about.

  10. maxhirez  October 17, 2013

    I see the point that you critics are making. Anyone who questions me in any way or fails to kneel before me is out to get me too.

  11. Wilusa  October 17, 2013

    I just had the very annoying experience of being “logged out” while I was trying to post a Comment. Bummer! Do many others experience this problem?

  12. Wilusa  October 17, 2013

    Now I’ll try to remember what I was “saying” before…

    I know you aren’t trying to “destroy Christianity” – you yourself didn’t cease to be Christian when you learned about these discrepancies and differences. (You had another reason, the problem of suffering.)

    But I think many people – perhaps especially Catholics, who were being taught in my youth to believe literally everything but the Biblical account of Creation – will abandon Christianity when they learn so much of what they’ve been taught is untrue. Many will be thankful at feeling free to walk away from it. I think that a century from now, Christianity will be irreversibly dying out.

    But that’s just one person’s opinion. And I’d already become an agnostic for another reason (not being convinced, intellectually, by arguments for the necessary existence of a Creator).

    Not checking the boxes below, in case my having checked them was what made my previous attempt to post not work…

  13. donmax  October 17, 2013

    Bart – I have noticed that even during the BAR lectures some folks speak ill of you simply because they think you have turned against “God’s Holy Word” and His message of salvation. What I wonder is to what extent that might be true, if at all. Also, given that you and your colleagues have devoted so much time and effort to scholarly education, and to sharing what you have learned about biblical history and the formation of early Christianity, how do you account for so much anti-Semitism these days, and why all the misinformation still being taught by Christians vis a vis the Jews, the Bible and their own religion?

    In other words, do you sometimes feel you are losing the war against ignorance?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  October 17, 2013

      My view is that the ignorance was here long before me; I’m just trying to bring a bit of light into the darkness….

      • donmax  October 18, 2013

        Oh, I think you are trying to do much more than that, thank god, and I commend you for the effort. From what I can see, you have done more than most to bring light into the darkness, but I fear what you, and other enlightened scholars, are up against runs deeper than mere ignorance. Words like intolerance, indoctrination and insidious malevolence come to mind.

  14. jaimeguzman  October 17, 2013

    I love your work and I always look forward to your next post.

  15. dennis  October 17, 2013

    The issue , I suppose , comes down to whether ” Christianity ” is primarily a system of belief or a way of life . If it is viewed as a means of escaping the bondage of our self absorbed , egocentric , ” it’s all about me ” pointless existence into a life of meaning and purpose , how could it possibly be threatened by a metaphorical rather than a literal interpretation of the ” historical events ” in the Gospels . If it succeeds in getting ” me out of me ” ( certainly a more impressive and valuable miracle than walking on water ) , then does it really matter on what day the Last Supper was held ? The ridged maintenance of any belief system ( including , I believe , the dogmatic New Atheism ) is an attempt to wrap our little rational minds around a universe whose ultimate questions are simply too complex for our little boxes of thought . If ” Christianity ” is self validating how could Dr. Bart Ehrman possibly threaten it ?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  October 17, 2013

      Also, even if it is a matter of belief,the question is, Belief in *what*? (surely not the Bible! No traditional creed of Christianity even *mentions* the Bible!)

      • webattorney  October 22, 2013

        Yes, it’s funny that now the Christianity has come down to believing in the Bible which never existed at the time of Christ!

  16. newswriter  October 17, 2013

    My parents used to own a compilation Bible that contained three translations of the Bible side-by-side, starting with the King James, Revised Standard Edition and ???? Edition in three columns on each page for easy comparison. Has anyone compiled a book rendering the Gospels side-by-side? ()
    Tried to find something like that on a Internet search and found something called The New Interpreters Bible. Wikipedia says in the 2nd graf of a 4 graf definition:
    “The volumes contain in-depth introductions and commentaries, complemented by original translations, with full critical notes that include alternate readings and alternative translations. Synopses of informed discussion of the historical origins and the manuscripts’ traditions are also provided.”
    Could this be a side-by-side rendering of the Gospels or is it just another of the sequential renderings with footnotes on various words with different translations?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  October 17, 2013

      Yes, these are normally called Gospel Synopses (or Gospel Parallels, etc.). The best known is by Throckmorton. The best is Kurt Aland’s Synopsis of the Four Gospels. They are very instructive indeed.

      • JudithW.Coyle  August 23, 2014

        Dr. Ehrman,

        There lies the solution to how my son can be enlightened about the discrepancies in the Bible! (I’ll get Kurt Aland’s Synopsis of the Four Gospels and have it here when he comes home Thanksgiving.)

        I am reading the archived posts and finding answers to many of my questions. You may not need to do anymore posts! Just direct us to the archives.

        Nowhere have I found in any of the posts or responses (and I’ve read so many my eyes could be strained) anyone commenting on the relationship itself between the Christian and God as Abba and Jesus as the one we are to try to follow. In my own life that bond is very strong. Julie Sweeney (I think that’s the name of that hilarious woman on YouTube, a former Catholic who lost her faith) attributes faith as being a right lobe brain-type thing. I cannot find anything anywhere on faith resulting from a biological cause. Have you dealt with that in a post?

        Finally, it would be interesting to learn how your close relationship to God as a Christian just vanished when you stopped believing. I cannot imagine how that could happen.

        Thank you for letting all of us write to you. You do so much and have very little time and yet you care enough to respond.

        Judy

  17. cheito
    cheito  October 18, 2013

    DR Ehrman:

    Here you have focused on the four Gospels. The discrepancies and contradictions of the copies we have are obvious. Do you think it’s probable that one or more of the canonical Gospels in the original textual form was historically accurate? If so, which one(s)?

    I thank God for Peter John and Paul who also witnessed, testified publicly and by letters, the Resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. . Personally I believe this men were speaking the truth.

    Evidently the writings of these ‘eye-witnesses’ were altered. The changes made are obvious to those who have studied all the writings of the Apostles and are who noble of mind. The interpolations were strategically inserted to confuse the meaning, and/or add some teaching not penned by the original author. As in 1 Corinthians 14:34-37. Were Paul seems to be teaching that women should remain silent in the Church. I understand this to be an addition; Paul did not write this. I know you’re are aware of this.

    My point: The Apostles’ were speaking the Truth about the resurrection of Jesus from the dead and about many other topics included in their teachings:
    The return of the Lord and when that would occur.
    The resurrection of the dead and the coming Kingdom.
    Marriage and divorce and The Lord’s will on these matters. Etc.

    The interpolators subtly altered these messages to confuse and contradict what the Apostles had recorded in previous texts or letters.

    One good example is the return of the Lord from heaven to Earth. Some verses imply that the apostles believed the Lord’s return was imminent and other verses teach that it would not happen until certain events occurred. The Apostles were not confused neither did they hope in vain. They knew what they were teaching concerning the return of the Lord. They understood that the fullness of the gentiles had to be accomplished before the Lord’s return and they believed that the Antichrist had to be revealed before believers were gathered to him.

    In short the actions of those who altered the Apostles messages does not invalidate the original testimony about the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and Eternal life to those who repent and believe in Him.

    • webattorney  November 7, 2013

      Now, who might have been those who “subtly altered these messages”? You mean the real God was not able to give poor men unaltered versions of his Words?

  18. laz  October 19, 2013

    Whats wrong with destroying Christianity anyways? its had its time in the sun.

  19. Eric  October 21, 2013

    I have been talking with two evangelical christians for a couple of years now,they feel it is their mission to lead me to Christ,neither of these men have formal training in the bible. I know most of the stories of the bible, but for the most part I know very little about the bible,so I try to use information from your books and blog while having these conversations,but I know I don’t do you justice so I have tried to get them to read your books,or to join your blog.One flat out refuses because you don’t have the holy spirit you can’t possibly know what your talking about.The other agrees with this thinking but is reading Misquoting Jesus.Yesterday this man went off about Mark being a source for Matthew and Luke,saying Mark is too short to be the source.his anger blew me away, I told him to talk to his preacher about this,he told me his preacher had no formal training but had a background in history and psychology. The funny thing is the one who refuses to read your work constantly asks me to prove my statements,and when I offer him any book to read to back up my statements,he refuses saying they have an agenda to destroy God.These men flat out hate you yet they know little or nothing about your teachings and what they’ve read they don’t understand.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  October 22, 2013

      What an odd response! Mark was *one* of the sources for Matthew and Luke, not the only one! This, by the way, was a view I had when I studied at Moody Bible Institute, a bastion of fundamentalism….

  20. webattorney  November 7, 2013

    There is one simple way to “shield” yourself from eager Christians who wish to convert you on the spot, and that is by telling the truth that unfortunately Holy Ghost has never visited you despite your fervent prayers, so that you have not been able to receive and acknowledge the Grace of God, and that it is your sincere hope that before you die, you will be visited upon by Holy Ghost, just as they have been visited upon by Holy Ghost. I found that this answer does the trick, and you come off very sympathetic to Christians.

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