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More on Faith and History

I have decided that one way to deal with all the comments that I get on the blog is to respond more directly, right away, and at length here by way of a new post rather than by (a) responding quickly in a comment on the comment in the comment section or (b) adding the comment to my long and getting longer list of comments and questions that I slowly work through one at a time to form the basis of some of my posts.

So I got a number of responses to my post yesterday about faith and history – some on the blog itself and some via emails (I prefer questions/comments on the blog itself, by the way, as I can deal with them more efficiently. In case anyone should ask you which I prefer 🙂 . Some of these comments were all heading in the same direction, and were made, I think, because (can you imagine it?) I was not as clear as I could be in what I was trying to say about the relationship of faith and history.

In these responses my responders pointed out that it really is impossible to keep faith and history separate from one another, since in many instances the historical conclusions one draws may stand in conflict with theological beliefs. So something has to give, either the history or the theology. But that means that they are not two absolutely distinct realms.

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Faith, History, and Isaiah 7
The Bible as History and Theology



  1. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  September 26, 2012

    Good post. Thanks again for all of your efforts with this blog. I don’t see how you could possibly have time to respond to so many people individually so this type of response seems more workable. This discussion reminds me of how scientists, like Stephen Gould, have advocated non-overlapping magisteria where science and theology are seen as two separate forms of truth. I think this separation is often not all that clean (for example with the to[pic of evolution) just like the separation between history and faith is not all that clean. I really don’t see how on can have faith based on something that is not historically reliable.

    • Avatar
      Adam  September 28, 2012

      unhistorical stories, parables, fiction, etc. often times sounds historical because real names, places, times, etc. are named. but these can be used as a tool to teach us what is “true” or “real.”

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    John  September 26, 2012

    Excellent post! I enjoy the increasing granularity.

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    dallaswolf  September 27, 2012

    Theological truth does not necessarily have to be literal historical fact.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  September 27, 2012

      I completely agree!!

    • Avatar
      toddfrederick  September 27, 2012

      dallaswolf….I also would like to believe that , “Theological truth does not necessarily have to be literal historical fact.” Perhaps I do not understand what the term “theological truth” means. For example, the classic statement from John, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life, no one come unto the Father except through me.” There is a bundle of theological truths in that statement. Far too many to discuss here. However, that saying of Jesus is thrown around with little explanation for the unbeliever to believe. How do we know the truth in that statement? Please understand, I am not being insincere or trying to bait an argument. I am truly seeking other ways outside of historical verification to understand that statement and others as theologically true and not false. This is an issue that many of us face when we try to witness. Simply to say “believe it is true” or “have faith that Jesus is the only way to God” is not an effective method of evangelism. Any thoughts on this will be most appreciated.

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    toddfrederick  September 27, 2012

    It is not possible to hold two contradictory ideas in the mind simultaneously. For example, we can not cognitively maintain that “Jesus is God” and that “Jesus is not God” at the same time. In my opinion, historical scriptural inquiry trumps theologically based faith. Long ago, I resolved that I would not believe in fairy tales, myths, myths, miracles and other “impossible things” as Alice put it. After reading your books, and those of other scholars over the years, it seems to be definitive that scripture is unreliable as a basis for belief, faith, and grounds for orthodox doctrine in the Christian Church. Either we delude ourselves in such belief or there must be other avenues outside Judeo-Christian scripture to maintain a faith in God. I do not know what those “other avenues” might be.

    • Avatar
      DMiller5842  October 14, 2012

      I feel the same way and cannot imagine how other people do it.

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    allenheydari  September 27, 2012

    Well said.

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    toddfrederick  September 27, 2012

    I apologize for writing too much in response to this topic. I want to mention one other thought and then I’ll shut-up

    In my comment above I mentioned “other avenues.” When I first came to Christianity it was through “social action” while in college (1960’s). While at Seminary at Yale Divinity I drove and participated in civil rights activities in Washington DC. I am also a pacifist and was involved in the peace movement which eventually led to the end of the Vietnam war. Today I am involved in homelessness and hunger issues and especially universal health care. My wife can literally walk now because of Obamacare…she just came home from her last spinal surgery. I also help support a church-based orphanage (about 25 orphans from the “garbage picking” groups) in Cascable Nicaragua ( flutemakerministries.org ), Jim Wallis’ Sojourners organization and your foundation attracted me to this blog and I plan to contribute regular contributions as funds allow.

    I take Jesus teaching on these issues very seriously, and when he said “follow me” he meant that we follow him even into the center of hell…hell is here BTW. I think his teachings as found in Matthew can be taken seriously and authentically. I believe that God works through us in this world.

    This gives me meaning and purpose in being a Christian in spite of all the other craziness. I am totally “social justice” obsessed. Blessings.

    Enough for now. Thanks for listening.

  7. Avatar
    SJB  September 27, 2012

    Prof Ehrman

    You say in your seventh paragraph that historical inaccuracy should affect theological interpretation. But then you add that historical inaccuracy does not preclude theological value. You clearly intend this to be a criticism of a fundamentalist approach.

    However it seems to me there are cases where historical inaccuracy does undermine theological value. And this is when the theological argument is also a historical argument. In Romans 5 & 6 Paul believes that Adam was a real human being whose disobedience caused sin and death to come into the world. Thus the need for the Second Adam. Doesn’t the fact that there was no historical Adam and that death is a biological and evolutionary imperative that predated the appearance of homo sapiens by millions of years and had nothing to do with any human action also undermine Paul’s theological argument as well?

    Now I can see how a modern theologian could say, well the Original Adam is simply a pre-scientific metaphor representing our humaness in need of redemption but…that’s NOT what Paul himself believed, is it?

    Sure we can reject every bit of history in the New Testament if that’s our pleasure and still do theology from now to the end of time but if we begin to divorce our theology from a grounding in history how much value can it really have?


    ps I probably need to point out that I’m a non-religious secular humanist and definitely not a fundamentalist who still has a hard time seeing how a historically inaccurate “scripture” can have much real contemporary theological value. Other than as a type of creative writing I suppose.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  September 27, 2012

      I think the question is why you place such a high premium on history as telling “truth,” and whether there might not be other avenues towards truth besides what actually happened in the past. Given the complications of knowing what really happened (ever, anywhere, anytimg!) it seems that it history is our only resource, we’re sunk! Just a thought….

      • Avatar
        tcc  September 28, 2012

        Yeah, but if what CERTAINLY happened historically (Paul and Jesus’ apocalyptic, utopian kingdom never happening, for example) blows a huge hole in the idea of a benevolent, intervening God (if he won’t save Jesus or Paul, who DOES this guy save, and what good is it to believe in him?) doesn’t that blatantly paint Orthodox Christianity as untrue? While I’m all for the death of fundamentalism, I think the “new Christians” will have a hell of a time trying to reinterpret these scriptures to suit a modern world–they’ll have to say that practically EVERYTHING in the Bible is “metaphor”.

        I mean, if theologians wanted to be really honest, based off history, they could just admit that Yahweh is either malevolent or indifferent. Omni-benevolence seems to be off the cards, just based off what I see on the news.

  8. Avatar
    Fredric  September 27, 2012

    Thank you, Bart! For a brief, shining moment, , because of your book “Forged”, I was able, last month, to be free of the tyranny of Orthodox Christianity! The talons of guilt are hard and long and dug in deep, however, and I am still working to get them all out. Nevertheless, I rejoice in the knowledge that God is (although a very different entity from what the Church teaches) but that the documents that ended up as the “New Testament” are, as your work shows, bogus masses of excretion. I can now continue on my personal path to the Clouds. May the “Ultimate Being” bless you and reward your efforts.

    • Avatar
      DMiller5842  October 14, 2012


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    hwl  September 27, 2012

    I am very sympathetic to the view that in historical analysis of the Bible, theological presuppositions should be avoided as much as possible. This must be the starting point and the target methodology. However, it is far from clear if on a point of methodology, history should be conducted devoid of any religious considerations. In practice, it is an unachievable ideal.

    First, on the point of methodology, the Bible is an inherently theological text, with copious references to actions and nature of God, interactions in human history. In most cases, biblical statements about God can be prefixed with “the authors/the characters in the narratives believe that God…” in order to ring-fence historical analysis from theological statements. Yet eventually, one has to ask if the claims after claims of God’s interactions in human history have any bearing on what actually happened. One can confine one’s historical analysis within a self-imposed methodology entailing agnosticism regarding the actuality of supernatural beings and miracles. This is perfectly legitimate historical analysis. But the historical method itself is incapable of ruling out any form of historical analysis that goes beyond agnosticism of the supernatural. Some meta-historical principle needs to be applied to make this move, and such a principle is not itself a principle of the historical method. It is easy to make the case that historical analysis should not concern itself with the veracity or otherwise of every theology assertion in the Bible; it is harder to insist it never addresses the issue.

    Theologians take for granted theology should be informed by history, not least because Christianity (as well as Judaism and Islam) claims to be a religion centred on God’s interactions with real human history. One should consider the reverse implication, and ask whether theology can legitimately inform historical analysis. The way this is answered depends crucially on the status of theology as an academic discipline: is it actually capable of saying anything about the way the world is, rather than merely elucidating what religious people believe about the world. Some secularists have raised doubts about the legitimacy of including theology courses in UK state-funded academic institutions, perhaps one of the reasons is doubt about theology being sufficiently grounded on principles those outside faith communities can accept as legitimate foundations. If theology is actually capable of evaluating the way the world is, then it is questionable if history should be insulated against theology, any more than history should be insulated from other disciplines such as the natural sciences. It is widely accepted in the modern world that natural sciences provide a very reliable form of knowledge, hence history must subject itself to findings of science. Theology does not offer the certainty of science, if it in fact offers any form of certainty at all. But if it can be shown theology is a legitimate academic discipline capable of offering knowledge about the world – albeit limited and tentative – then there is no good reason to exclude any theological principle or any theological conclusion from historical analysis. In this scenario, historical analysis must still retain boundaries against other disciples including political theory, ethical theories, philosophy and other humanities – including theology. As the situation stands, it seems the theologians have not shown to the satisfaction of those outside faith communities that theology provides reliable knowledge of the world.

    Second, on the point of historical analysis in practice, it is unrealistic to expect scholars doing historical analysis on Israelite religion or early Christianity who happen to be a practising Jew or Christian (or an avowed atheist), to maintain theological or religious neutrality at all times, any more than we can expect a jury member to be objective in a trial involving his beloved wife (or a jury member who is a sworn enemy of the defendant from previous personal dealings unrelated to the trial). A good deal of historical analysis, especially ancient history, amounts to a balance of probabilities based on inconclusive evidence. Where evidence is inconclusive, naturally other a priori principles, or evidence outside strictly historical data, will be brought to bear in order to determine the likelihood – otherwise how else is one going to determine the exact probability between zero and one. For this reason, practising Christians will generally be inclined to err on the side of historical accuracy of events reported in the Bible, even if they don’t subscribe to the doctrine of inerrancy.

  10. Avatar
    Jim  September 27, 2012

    Now that I paid my dues, I can bring the quality of this site down a few levels by reducing its impact factor. To me, if you separate faith from history you just get another academic discipline. Where is the fun in that? After all, if there is no conspiracy happening why would you need a CIA?

    Now for the trivial question – does anyone view Marcus Borg’s dating of Luke to the first decade of the second century as supportable? To me this timing could seem to provide some interesting contextual insight into things like Docetism (sorry for combining two different posted topics). I’m not a historian so I apologize if I’m asking something obvious.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  September 27, 2012

      Well, one could argue that if you approach history theologically then you’re just doing theology — and that that too is another academic discipline! 🙂

      Marcus didn’t come up with this idea; it has become one of the standard views recently. I don’t buy it myself, and I think most scholars of the NT don’t buy it, but it’s just a guess on my part. Some very fine scholars agree with it. (Most prominently, Richard Pervo)

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    alion99  September 29, 2012

    is there a standard method or body for verification of the sources. one source may be authentic for one historian but not for other.

    is it common method for sources in our era are written sources?
    did you hear in seventh century some communities created sciences to verify verbal source in central Asian republics. verification of honesty of the person and did the person mention in chain of narration actually met each other

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  October 1, 2012

      Sorry — I’m not sure I understand your question(s)!

      • Avatar
        alion99  October 6, 2012

        i have two questions
        first how can we trust the source of historian are using. one source could be authentic for one historian but not for other. my question is do we have some standard method or body for the source verification.

        second question i believe most of the source for today are written sources. is there any other medium of sources. some central Asian communities devise method to verify verbal sources. for example how honest the person. if in chain of narration any two person are mentioned system verify if two person live in same time and place.

        may be now i am able to clear my questions

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  October 6, 2012

          It’s much harder for sources that come to us from antiquity. You may want to see my discussions in Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium.

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    DPeel  October 2, 2012

    I was raised as a Southern Baptist and was taught that the Philistines defeated the Jews because God was angry with the Jews. Now, I consider myself more of a “historian” and know the Philistines were simply militarily superior. The facts support the Philistines defeating the Jews but I stay away from the “theology” that the reason was God. I love to read the “facts” and avoid the “divine why”.

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