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The Lowdown on Why I Study the Bible

In my previous post I began responding to the question of why I would study a book that I don’t “believe in.” In that response I gave more or less the “official” line as found in my just-now published introductory textbook on the Bible. Here I’ll say something a bit more casual and personal about it.

I get asked the question a lot, sometimes by agnostics/atheists who have no time for religion and don’t understand why I would waste my time with it, and more often by hard-core believers who think the Bible is *their* book and don’t appreciate me encroaching on their turf. I understand both objections and am somewhat sympathetic with them, although at the end of the day I have deep and heart-felt objections to them.

First, my agnostic/atheist friends. I think it is very strange indeed to think that one should not become intimately familiar with what one opposes. If I’m a capitalist who thinks socialism or communism is heinous, I really should know a lot about them before attacking them. I know lots of people who attack Marx – and in another realm of discourse, who attack Freud – without knowing the first thing about him. On one hand, I don’t see the point of that; on the other hand, I think it just makes a person look like an idiot.
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An Unknown Gospel
Why Would Someone Like Me Study the Bible??



  1. Robertus
    Robertus  September 18, 2013

    Fundamentalize. Never seen it before as a verb, but I like it!.

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    RonaldTaska  September 18, 2013

    I am glad that you have that passion and am sorry that you get criticism from atheists as well as fundamentalists. Keep plugging away. Your work is a breath of fresh air introducing some reason into a field where reason is often not welcome.

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    Jim  September 19, 2013

    Now suppose a mathematics textbook was being used for oppressing women, gays, people of color, most anyone else “we” don’t like …, would you have gone into mathematics? 3:)

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  September 19, 2013

      Nope. Way too hard! (But that’s not why I *started* getting interested in the Bible!!)

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      dhuber  November 6, 2013

      I certainly would, why not? First it would be fascinating to see theorem that gays=<0 just to try to prove or disprove it! Would not any reasoning "talking monkey" do the same, divine or not. If we have a passion for what we believe is divine injustice, would,we not seek after that proof with… religious fervor?

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    staib  September 19, 2013

    I get annoyed when people treat it as a science textbook.

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    SelfAwarePatterns  September 19, 2013

    I’m a non-believer and an ex-Christian who finds this stuff endlessly interesting, albeit from a historical and anthropological angle. I’m also interested in the history and evolution of ancient and prehistoric religions despite never having believed in any of them.

    Atheists and agnostics who criticize fellow non-believers for being interested in this stuff need to stop hating and go find their own hobbies.

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    RonaldTaska  September 19, 2013

    I might add that I have been struck by how many Christians really do not study or even read the Bible. You would think that they would be very interested in a topic such as “How did we get the Bible,” but many have absolutely no interest in such subjects at all. In fact, they just do not trust academic scholarship which is all “liberal.” Quite discouraging..

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    jhague  September 19, 2013

    A reason that I have for studying and understanding the bible (which falls into what you have said) is because I was told so many wrong and inaccurate things regarding the bible by the church I was a part of for nearly 40 years. Like you said, the only way a person can know if they are being taught incorrectly, is to think for themselves and study what the truth is regarding the bible.

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    Wilusa  September 19, 2013

    I was reflecting on what you’ve said about the importance of Christianity in the history of Western civilization. And I find myself wondering…if Constantine hadn’t embraced Christianity, and it had died out, might *all* theistic religions (except Judaism, which seldom proselytizes) have died out in Europe and European-settled regions? Or at least all *organized* religions? Simple deism (belief in a Supreme Being) doesn’t have any particular “requirements.” What a different world it would have been!

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  September 19, 2013

      I think Judaism would have survived, but as a minority religion (as it still is). Islam would never have existed, and Christianity… who knows? On the other hand, if Constantine hadn’t converted, maybe a later emperor would have….

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        rbarrimond  September 20, 2013

        I’m Roman Catholic and making the Church a state religion has been IMHO one of the worst things that could happen to the faith. We had become exactly what were NOT supposed to be. I live in Philadelphia and almost left the Church because of the sex scandal. Straws and camel’s backs and all. But by God’s grace I am what I am. And we have a Pope that’s reminding people that it’s not the fourth century any more. On a very real level I wish Constantine had never converted, just left us the hell alone…

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    donmax  September 19, 2013

    We like what we like and we all have our reasons, even if we don’t know why. Thanks for sharing!

  10. cheito
    cheito  September 19, 2013

    “And in my judgment the best way to oppose the misuse of the Bible is to explain what it really is, and what it really is not. It is not, for example, a blueprint for how men ought to treat women, or for how straight legislators ought to criminalize sexual activities of persons of other persuasions. But to show WHY it’s not that requires that a person show the problems with taking the Bible as a literal set of directions for how we should live our lives”.

    Dr Ehrman: The verses below demonstrate that the bible is exactly what you’re saying it is not. Actually it’s more than a blueprint. According to 1 Thessalonians 1-8, the words recorded there are THE VERY WILL OF GOD: According to Paul, God is COMMANDING US to abstain from sexual immorality. It’s not a suggestion. It’s a command! And it further states that those who reject the WILL OF GOD for us is rejecting God’s Holy Spirit and that God will avenge himself on the individual who indulges in lustful passions and hurts his neighbor in the matter.

    Also Dr Ehrman: There are principles and guidelines, and I believe wisdom from God Himself in the words of 1 Peter 3:7, on how a man should treat his wife and vice-versa. So your assertion that the bible it’s not “a blueprint for how men ought to treat women” it’s not correct, Biblically speaking. It’s actually more than a blueprint it’s God’s will.

    As for “straight legislators criminalizing sexual activities of persons of other persuasions.
    Homosexuality was illegal in this country until legislators legalized it. The opposite of what you’re declaring here is true. Legislators CHANGED the laws to legalize a sexual behavior considered immoral. Were these legislators gay or straight? The fact that these people are homosexual, according to the words of Paul the Apostle of Christ, is not because of genes, but it’s their own choice. Paul says the the women abandoned the natural function [of the man] for that which is unnatural and the men did the same thing. It was their own doing because they did not acknowledge God.
    The bible denounces homosexuality as a sin, and sentences those who practice it to punishment by the WRATH of God and ouster from the coming kingdom of God and Christ. No gay rights in the kingdom of God! Repentance of homosexuality is required according to the bible. The Apostles of Jesus Christ clearly teach this. Romans 1:18, 26,27.

    What do you say about this Dr Ehrman? Should these Bible verses be taken literally?

    NOTE: Below are the scriptural verses used to make my points.

    1 Corinthians 6:9-Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, 10nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, will inherit the kingdom of God.

    Romans 1:18-For the WRATH of God is REVEALED from heaven AGAINST all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness,

    Romans 1:26-For this reason God gave them over to degrading passions; for their women EXCHANGED the NATURAL function for that which is UNNATURAL, 27-and in the same way also the men abandoned the natural function of the woman and burned in their desire toward one another, men with men committing indecent acts and receiving in their own persons the due penalty of their error.

    1 Thessalonians11-Finally then, brethren, we request and exhort you in the Lord Jesus, that as you received from us instruction as to how you ought to walk and please God (just as you actually do walk), that you excel still more. 2-For you know what commandments we gave you by the authority of the Lord Jesus. 3-For this is the will of God, your sanctification; that is, that you abstain from sexual immorality; 4-that each of you know how to possess his own vessel in sanctification and honor, 5not in lustful passion, like the Gentiles who do not know God;

    1 Peter 3:7-You husbands in the same way, live with your wives in an understanding way, as with someone weaker, since she is a woman; and show her honor as a fellow heir of the grace of life, so that your prayers will not be hindered.

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    toddfrederick  September 20, 2013

    Very well stated. I look forward to many years of these discussions.

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    bobnaumann  September 20, 2013

    Why do you say Islam would never have existed if Constatine had not converted to Christianity? I thought Islam was more tied to Judaism than Christianity since they have common roots.

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    rbarrimond  September 20, 2013

    Amen brother! Someone asked me the other day Why I am Christian? (Implication being I’m smart, rational, and intelligent, so why would I believe such nonsense?) my answer was short, simple, and to the point. “Because I love Jesus.” So the follow up question was very revealing. “Why do you love Jesus?” And he wanted an answer in 140 characters or less! Obviously I tried to tell a short story as a metaphor so he would understand. I was told that was “lecturing.” It’s kind of ridiculous and completely understandable at the same time.

    So, good professor, why do you want to stop the Bible’s abuse? LOL. 🙂

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    Steefen  September 20, 2013

    Bart Ehrman: Let me be clear about the point. I personally am NOT (I am *NOT*) interested in studying the Bible because I see myself as the *enemy* of the Bible. That’s not true in the least.

    Steefen: The Bible is not to be loved. It tells the story of a notion of God which committed atrocities in the TANAK and in the New Testament. Its notion of God did not produce the greatness of Ancient Egypt, the greatness of Ancient Greece, the greatness of Ancient Macedonia under Alexander the Great, the Greatness of the Roman Empire. Its timeframe is approximately 2800 BCE to 80 CE. In broad strokes the Biblical God

    walks and talks with the first family but Grandpa God could not get his Grandsons from being perpetrator and victim of murder;

    floods human beings except for Noah’s family. Noah’s family was so holy that as soon as that get on dry land there’s some question of immorality between father and son. How holy could they be that everyone else needed to be drowned?

    puts in the mind of the faithful that it is okay to murder one’s son;

    hardens the heart of a world leader. Do you know how dangerous that is for world leaders to be hard-headed and hard-hearted? That’s not a notion of God in line with the highest aspirations of being humane, nurturing, and safe.

    creates a unified kingdom that supposed to so great but there is no record of great foreign relations between David and Egypt. Solomon had an Egyptian wife while Egyptians usually do not send their princesses to foreign countries only accepts princesses from foreign countries. The star is associated with David but at the same time there is an Egyptian Pharaoh who also has a star in the hieroglyphics of his name. The archaeological evidence for a two-king reign of greatness does not compare to the one-king reign of Alexander.

    Babylonian exile

    Jewish Life under the Seleucids

    Jewish Temple funded by Romans not by Jews

    Jewish Temple destroyed by Romans in less than 100 years.

    We have a godly son in Jesus who is rejected by Jewish authorities and a God who again, cannot lead a people to empire and a kingdom of righteousness.

    We have Paul who teaches people that they have a resurrection body. Jesus never taught that. So, you have a Bible that pulls people away from death, near death experiences, and sometimes reincarnation to a new and wrong concept that a reincarnation body is a fact of life. It is not. And the majority of people would prefer a new body via reincarnation than the resurrection of a body that may have come to an end via torture by Rome or Inquisition.

    This is not the making of a notion of God to be loved or a collection of books to be loved.

    The education and the progress of humanity and the integrity of being human are harmed by the unsatisfactory components of the Biblical notion of God and God’s Word.

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    raskel  September 21, 2013

    Dr. Erhman:

    I am perplexed by your comments. In my lifetime/ I have always found that it is easy to hate and be critical of those things about which I knew the least. If you thoughtfully consider another point of view/ you submit to the real danger of being persuaded by another point of view. Better to ignore it or mock it/ or if you have sufficient power/ to smash it.

    Fundamentalism is nothing more than the expression of the human will to power. The fundamentalist recognizes in his or her heart that nothing exists beyond arbitrary human authority. The Bible is true because the fundamentalist witnesses that it is so. If the Bible is not true then nothing is true. Or better/ we would have to invent another absolute truth and passionately assert its absolute truthfulness/ and the more absurd our assertions/ the better to highlight our own agency. The fundamentalist has looked into the abyss and seen the absolute nothingness staring back. What better expresses this nihilism than insisting that ancient fables for children are the literal truth about the nature and origins of the universe?

    Man is the measure of all things. The fundamentalist acknowledges this implicitly: hers is the true atheism. But how is the truth revealed to our modern historical scholar? Historical causes (like physical causes but without any ability for empirical verification)? Psychological causes? Authority? Or is the historical-critical method just another mythology for our dark aeon? The shuffling of one arbitrary set of assumptions in favor of a new one?

    If we consider the Bible/ that arbitrary mish-mash of ancient writings cobbled together for the express purpose of helping to legitimate and justify an order of things/ then we have to acknowledge that the intended purpose of the Bible was as a normative instrument for exercising political and social control. What greater abuse or misreading of the Bible can there be than to treat it as objective historical data in contrast to an ahistorical normative instrument of social control? It is the cannon by God/ not some random collection of manuscripts that some archeologist dug out of hole somewhere.

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    maxhirez  September 21, 2013

    You’re a good man Ehrman.

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    raskel  September 24, 2013

    I can imagine a tribe in the Amazon that had a special stick that they claim had been sent down from heaven ten thousand years ago. The stick is used as the norm for measuring the proper height of the king’s throne. Modern scholars arrive and analyze the stick and determine that part of it was mined from one area of the Amazon 600 years ago/ and another part manufactured from wood five hundred years later. Does this matter? Does this prove that tribe has been measuring the height of the throne the wrong way? Do they have to find a new way to measure the proper height for the king’s throne? Or can they just ignore what the scholars say?

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    Chrystal Keeney  December 29, 2013

    Dr. Ehrman, thank you for sharing this with us. I, personally, have been studying a lot recently to try and find my way out of what I’ve been told by other people all my life and into unbiased truths. I was raised a Mormon, but never could accept the notion that God, if there is a God, would choose people only belonging to a certain religion and cast everyone else into hell. After all, there are good people from all walks of life, but they can’t enter God’s Kingdom because they aren’t Mormon? That was a faith breaker for me. I have several other reasons, but I could go on and on about them. It has become apparent to me, that in order for me to make any decisions on faith, I must first become fully informed on each one. I know, that’s a tall order to undertake, but it’s become a bit of an obsession of mine recently. Anyways, would you please make a few recommendations for books written by scholars of the religions you specified in your post (Roman Catholicism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Muslim, etc…)? I trust your judgement completely, and your input is greatly appreciated. Your books have been real eye openers for me, and I feel more enlightened now than ever before. All of the questions I’ve been turning over in my head for years are finally being answered in an intelligent way that makes reasonable sense and doesn’t leave me with more unanswerable questions. Thank you!

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  December 31, 2013

      Maybe the easiest and best approach would be a world religions textbook, competently covering all the major traditions. Two of the best sellers are: Molloy, Experiencing World Religion and Brodd, Invitation to World Religions. Hope these help.

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        Chrystal Keeney  December 31, 2013

        Thanks, I’ll check them out!

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