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More Responses to My Newsweek Article

When the editor at Newsweek ask me if I would be willing to write an article on the birth of Jesus, I was hesitant and wrote him back asking if he was sure he really wanted me to do it. I told him that I seem to be incapable of writing anything that doesn’t stir up controversy. It must be in my blood. Still, he said that they knew about my work and were not afraid of controversy, and they did indeed want an article from me.

What’s interesting to me is that I’ve been getting it from all sides. I don’t know why that should surprise me. It seems to be the story of my life. For years my agnostic and atheist readers were cheering me on from the sidelines as I talked about the problems posed by a critical study of the New Testament: there are discrepancies and contradictions, the Gospels are not written by eyewitnesses, and the stories they contain were modified over time, and many of them were invented, in the oral traditions before anyone wrote them down. Etc. My “non-believer” readers were pleased that all this was coming out in a popular format for the general reader.

And then I wrote Did Jesus Exist?, arguing that there is no serious doubt for virtually any real scholar of antiquity (whether biblical scholar, classicist, historian) that Jesus of Nazareth really did live.  And many of my agnostic and atheist allies suddenly felt completely betrayed and began to attack me even more virulently than the conservative Christians had earlier done.

You can’t please all the people all the time, and sometimes you just never can please everyone.  But so it goes.

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The Mayan Calendar, Y2K, and the Letter of Barnabas
Responses to my Newsweek Article



  1. Avatar
    FrancisDunn  December 15, 2012

    Dr Ehrman: Sir, you write so well. When I read your work its like spending time with with an old friend. The truth sets us all free. Wishing you and yours very happy holidays.

  2. Avatar
    hschick  December 15, 2012

    One has to wonder how much acceptance the concept of turning the other cheek would have had in Jesus’ time and beyond if there weren’t some “miracles” associated with the concept.

  3. Avatar
    z8000783  December 15, 2012

    “I do not personally hold to the New Testament as Scripture or the Word of God, in no small part because I am an agnostic-atheist (agnostic in the sense that I do not know if there is a greater power in the universe; atheist in the sense that I do not believe that the traditional Judeo-Christian God exists). ”

    Bart, would you mind if I use that elsewhere?

  4. Avatar
    Adam  December 15, 2012

    I think many people do not know that/see how the Bible has been and continues to be used and/or misused today to support things like sexism, racism, opposition to women, capitalist dominance, and war. By the way, this would be an interesting book topic!

    This still happens today, often in a subtle and non-public way (ie. actions or words are not seen by alot of people, but nonetheless hurt people in the confines of small communities, or families, or churches, etc.). But every once and a while what happens in a non-public way comes out explicitly for all to see.

    Example: (3 minute youtube clip): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NqN9Oan3YnU (the preacher in this clip is the pastor of one of the largest American independent baptist churche). Sadly, a few months ago he was jailed for admitting to planning to have sex with a teen.

    For those who think this is an extreme example, it isn’t. It is only extreme in the sense that he is explicit in what he thinks and he’s very public about it. Thoughts and attitudes like these invade many communities, families, churches, etc.

  5. Avatar
    taylorcg  December 15, 2012

    When I was going through my divorce and subsequent custody battle, my children were subjected to conflicting reports on all sides. Mom says one thing, and dad says another. I finally ended the back and forth dialogue and told my children this: There is my truth and your father’s truth, and what actually happened (the real truth) is somewhere in the middle. We all have our own truth, but often our emotions cloud our judgement, and we operate based on what we believe is right. As a religious studies major, I am always surprised at how the extremely faithful are offended by my truth which is usually different than theirs. Why do we (human race) feel such a deep need to prove that we are right? At what point can we step back, look at the person across from us, and say, “Wow! what an interesting way to look at that situation!” It is my opinion that the end of your Newsweek article was open and accepting of both sides. People will tear apart a two word construction and try to find hidden meaning or argue that it will lead others “astray.” Historical facts do not lead us astray, rather they illuminate the path. When people are finally ready to explore truth of their neighbor, they will praise the scholars that argued for accuracy with compassion. That is what you have done, Bravo!

  6. Avatar
    toddfrederick  December 15, 2012

    I have recently read many of your books and am into your book regarding Jesus as an apocalyptic prophet. I will continue to read your writings and your blog entries. You have given concrete evidence for what I have long considered to be true (that scripture is a human document written by people who are flawed).

    However, I have recently wondered how you can truly enjoy (and endure) your line of work with your loss of faith. It would seem to me that the mental dissonance would lead to great frustration and personal anguish in studying and teaching about something which you know is not historically true and has led you away from your faith….not to mention all of the flack you must have to dodge from the average person on a daily basis, including your beginning students, knowing that you will never change the minds of your most rigid fundamentalist critics.

    How do you deal with it…with any enthusiasm? I left church work because of that….what’s you secret?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  December 17, 2012

      Christianity is the most significant phenomenon in the history of the West, whether looked at religiously, politically, socially, culturally, economically, or any other way. And so studying its beginnings is absolutely fundamental to understanding who we are as western people. In universities lots of people research all sorts of things they don’t believe in or practice (Marxism, Chaucer, Plato, etc.). Maybe I’ll post on the question at some point — it’s a good one.

      • Avatar
        toddfrederick  December 17, 2012

        Thank you. I do hope you will give more of your thoughts on this in the future. Your blog and books have unraveled many confusions for me.

  7. Robertus
    Robertus  December 15, 2012

    Nicely put.

  8. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  December 15, 2012

    Wow again! Hang in there! There are also those of us who genuinely respect and appreciate your tremendous output and your way of conveying things so that the “Barnes and Nobles crowd” can get it. I have spent my life in a world where no one else speaks of such things and it is quite isolating. So keep going and don’t get discouraged. My real journey started with “The Age of Reason” by Thomas Paine and then went to “The Quest of the Historical Jesus” by Albert Schweitzer, then to reading The New Testament in Greek in college, and then to the books written by Spong before, while working as a Duke psychiatrist, I read a review of one of your books in the Durham newspaper which introduced me to your books and Teaching Company lectures and debates available on the Internet. They have been so helpful. The criticisms aimed at you are really hard for me to watch. If the critics were attacking the historical facts that would be important, but none of them seem to do that except in very general terms. I still think the “history” is the “theology.”

  9. Avatar
    DMiller5842  December 15, 2012

    Thank you for this post, which clears up what I have been asking and wondering about since reading “Did Jesus Exist?”. I have been very confused by your references to other interpretations and how your friends who share your knowledge of the Bible could still be believing Christians despite this knowledge. Reading this from you did open my mind and my heart to some other possibilities that I had closed from consideration.
    I know that I will never be able to place my faith in revealed religion because it defies logic. Thomas Paine addresses more than textual criticism in his “The Age of Reason”. The nature of the Christian god, the concept of original sin, the unjust moral code of the innocent (Jesus) being sentenced to die in place of the guilty (all of humanity), etc. The entire concept of revealed religion communicated from one man or a group of men to all others instead of from God directly to all men(another of Paine’s themes) seems illogical to me as well. I suppose this is the sort of discussion that is out of bounds in your class, in your books, on your blog etc. because it is not about determining the historical facts or contextual accuracy. For me and I would think many of your other readers, the interest we have in the historical facts and contextual accuracy is all about determining if the Bible is truthful and reliable as a basis for our faith. It is not an academic pursuit. As Thomas Paine said: “….before anything may be proved by the Bible, the Bible itself must be proved to be true; for if the Bible be not true, or the truth of it be doubtful, it ceases to have authority, and cannot be admitted as proof of anything.” I think one reason that you get it from all sides is that part of the audience does not want you to stop at the point of saying these are the historical and textual facts as best we can determine them. One part of the audience wants you to push that on to a conclusion as Paine did above. The other part of the audience (believers) are already jumping there and assuming your conclusion. They see where the logic leads too and it does take away Biblical authority.
    Anyway, I want to thank you over and over for helping me separate, as Thomas Jefferson said, “the diamonds from the dung”.

  10. Avatar
    dallaswolf  December 15, 2012

    I am a Pentecostal and have no problem with your position. If God is truth then truth, wherever and from whomever we find it, is from God.

  11. Avatar
    Jim  December 15, 2012

    Why spend time worrying over controversy? I have just one more week to go on my dogmatic belief in Mayan infallibility.

  12. Avatar
    tcc  December 15, 2012

    Do you think a lot of these misconceptions about the gospels’ historicity has been caused by Christian apologists’ saying they’re “eye witness accounts” as a way to evangelize, and to respond to rationalistic historical methods? I’ve noticed William Lane Craig keeps saying they’re eye-witness accounts (even though they’re not) just so he can get the audience in his debates on his side. It’s hard not to be pretty disgusted with somebody that dishonest, since he uses the consensus of scholarship to validate Jesus’ historicity, but he conveniently ignores the scholarly consensus that the gospels weren’t written by eye witnesses, and that it’s IMPOSSIBLE TO PROVE A MIRACLE HAPPENED HISTORICALLY.

    I don’t get how you, Hitchens and Lawrence Krauss debated with that dude. I’d get brain cancer debating with somebody who says stuff like that.

  13. Avatar
    donmax  December 15, 2012

    Well said, Bart. I hear you loud and clear and I agree your point of view. Amen!

  14. Avatar
    Mikail78  December 16, 2012

    A few things. I, too, still love the bible, at least the good parts in it, and those good parts provide meaning and inspiration. I also find much inspiration in “Conan the Barbarian” even though it’s pure fantasy. I hope people don’t think I’m too weird for saying that. 🙂

    On a related issue, it is my personal opinion that the time has come for us as nonbelievers who are familiar with the Bible and Christianity to expose evangelical/fundamentalist Christianity for the fraud that it is. Notice that I said evangelical/fundamentalist Christianity and not Christianity in general. Christianity per se isn’t necessarily a problem. It’s certain kinds of it that are and this would include the evangelical/fundamentalist kind. I’m not saying that we should expose it for what it is just to be a pain in the ass to fundy believers. I’m saying this because much of the American population holds to these dangerous beliefs, including many politicians. I just read that four out of 10 Americans believe the recent disastrous weather is a sign of the end times. Sarah Palin, who almost was our vice president, and could have been one heartbeat away from the presidency, is a fundy Christian who believes America gets blessings from God by supporting Israel unconditionally. Several American Christians believe as she does. I think these two examples show how dangerous fundamentalist religion can be to us all, and why it’s important to show that it’s crap. Again, this is just my opinion, and I know that probably not everyone agrees with such an aggressive approach.

    Bart, I know I just mentioned this recently, so I hope you don’t mind me mentioning this here. This context just seemed appropriate as it’s related to things you’ve mentioned in this blog post, in my opinion at least. I won’t mention it again.

  15. Avatar
    Christian  December 16, 2012

    You responded to a comment to the previous posting: “I don’t think before the Enlightenment people differentiated between historical truth and theological truth; the very distinction, which we make today, would not have made sense to ancient people.”

    I have a stupid question, if you’ll excuse me: How do modern scholars know this?

    By the way, since you mentioned Origen: What did scholars learn about the recently discovered homelies?

  16. Avatar
    glucab86  December 16, 2012

    (Sorry for my english)

    As an agnostic-atheist myself I appreciated the mission of “Did Jesus Exist?” because a person a person devoted to the discovery of the truth should not be afraid to find truths that challenge their own vision of the world. But he must change his vision accordingly to the new evidence. Thanks to you now I’ve read almost 30 books on the historical Jesus, and I’ve found a fascinating story and a very satisfying and rational explanation founded in the historical data. (also, I’ve realized the importance of good scholarship).

    But I do not think we should stop thinking and debate about the meaning of faith in our society.

    It is better to teach our children to believe in fairy tales (like life after death or a personal force that controls the universe though it seems not to) or teach critical thinking and secular values ​​that arise from reason and experience? it is right to teach stories and wishes and instill a belief that will affect them forever in their search for truth and meaning of life? Although maybe it will make them happier, I think it is deeply dishonest and wrong.

    It’s just an honest question, there is no desire to be controversial.

    “Buon natale” Bart, thanks for your fantastic work: D

  17. Avatar
    Joshua150  December 16, 2012

    Excellent .

  18. Avatar
    gavriel  December 16, 2012

    Do you think that “Luke” and “Matthew” really believed in their infancy stories, that they were handed down in some way, or is it possible that they themselves made them up just to give support to important dogmas?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  December 17, 2012

      I think it’s impossible to say. They probably inherited parts, which they believed, and set them in some kind of literary framework. I certainly don’t think they thought they were lying or disseminating falsities.

      • Avatar
        z8000783  December 18, 2012

        But would they have recognised them as falsities? After all they were writing theology were they not and I think you have mentioned before, that historical accuracy was not so important to them as it is to us now days.

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  December 18, 2012

          I think it’s hard to know what was actually in someone’s minds — I wish we could know!

      • Avatar
        pdahl  December 28, 2012

        Bishop Spong writes straight to this very point in his 1996 book entitled… Liberating the Gospels: Reading the Bible with Jewish Eyes. His main thesis is that Old Testament is far more of a template for the New Testament narratives than most laypersons generally recognize, and he gives literally hundreds of examples. If only half of these cited allusions ultimately withstand scholarly scrutiny, then my own sense is that he will have made his point. As for the OT sources Spong claims were used to decorate the Matthew-Luke birth narratives in particular, his chapters 11-13 in the book present a cogent summary. Any thoughts on Spong’s hypothesis?

        Bottom line from my read of Spong is that Matthew and Luke knew they weren’t writing history. But neither were they peddling known falsities, which would be dishonest by any standard. Rather, they were writing for a 1st-century Jewish audience who understood their “midrashic” writing style and who therefore could readily apprehend the intended theological interpretations behind the biographical-sounding narratives. Spong goes on to claim that this “midrashic” way of reading the Gospels was entirely lost on the 2nd-4th-century Church fathers, who were not Jews but Gentiles, and who wrongly assumed an intended literalism in the Gospels which then (mis?-)informed their evolving Christologies. Spong’s description of these fathers sounds an awful lot like the “proto-orthodox” Christians you described in 1993, Bart, in your book entitled… The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture (pp. 20-21). Any comments?

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  December 29, 2012

          I”m afraid I don’t read popular books, just works of scholarship. Spong is an interesting person (we’ve met on occasion, and I think even given talks at the same event) and has done a world of good making scholarship available to broader audiences, even though he isn’t a scholar himself. Th ebasic idea that the OT provided the NT writers with substance for their stories is widely held, and I agree with it in general. (Although one could dispute whether Luke thought he was writing history, since he seems to claim, at least, that he was doing just that. I don’t think he’s historically accurate, but that doesn’t mean that he wasn’t putting his spin on history…)

          • Avatar
            pdahl  December 29, 2012

            Ditto for me, regarding my choice of geological readings, so I fully appreciated your views on popular NT works written by non-scholars. If you were ever to make an exception, however, this one particular Spong book is not only the best of his canon, in my layman’s opinion, but also a work of potential interest to your NT scholarship (if only for all the references, etc.).

  19. Avatar
    maxhirez  December 17, 2012

    “Just as I have no trouble with people who find rich meaning in the words of Euripides, Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, Lucretius, Chaucer, Milton, Shakespeare, Dickens, Eliot, and John Irving, ”

    I’m surprised JK Rowling didn’t make this list.

    Well put. The Bible has immense value even to those of us who don’t think it’s the word of God. I can find no fault in your opinions herein stated.

  20. Avatar
    Bertrand  December 18, 2012

    What does a Biblical scholar who is an agnostic-atheist have to say about prayer?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  December 18, 2012

      Depends what you mean! I think people pray a lot. I think prayer helps them the way meditation helps me — gives a sense of calm and has a terrific physiological result. But I don’t think prayers get answered, any more than my own wishful thinking does.

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