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Old and Ongoing Criticisms!

I was browsing through old posts from the blog and came across this one from almost exactly six years ago, about criticisms people make of my work.   They still make the same wretched criticisms!   But here I try to answer two of the most common ones I hear, based on a perceptive (and non-antagonistic) question about them.   I think the same thing today, as I’m demonstrably older and allegedly wiser.

QUESTION:

I want to ask your thoughts on something quickly because I think it points out one of the concerns I have with what you write and say.

It seems that you have a willingness to take different positions (or maybe emphasize different positions is the right way to say it) depending on where you are and what you’re advocating. In your interview with the Infidel Guy and other places, you talk about how ancient writings were dictated all the time. On the Infidel Guy show, for example, you said the following: “Every person who wrote epistles in the ancient world dictated them to scribes”. But in your debate with Darrell Bock on the Unbelievable radio show (August 6, 2011) you try and argue the case that there is no evidence for dictation having happened in the ancient world (specifically in response to this claim about 1 and 2 Peter).

I have also been told that when you speak in scholarly circles, the sensationalistic claims you make about the unreliability of the Bible when speaking to laymen are much more toned down because your peers aren’t as susceptible to the shock factor as college students.

Like I said above, I like how you speak and write and I think you’ve done some real good by turning peoples’ attention to a greater awareness of Biblical criticism. But it disturbs me that you seem to be willing to take different positions based on what you’re trying to achieve at the time.

RESPONSE:

I hear this criticism from time to time, and so would like to respond to it here. I wish I could say that I will respond to it once and for all, but the reality is that there is no way to keep anyone from criticizing you, even if they make criticisms you’ve already answered (or tried to answer). Or so I’ve noticed…. But I don’t think this criticism is fair and so want to address it.

I should explain that this question came to me in an email, and I explained myself to the person who sent it, who wasn’t being mean-minded or bad-willed about it at all; afterwards he indicated that he was satisfied with my response and thanked me for it. Here I’m just using his question as an example of the kind of criticism I sometimes get.

The first part of the criticism, on the question of dictation, is, I think simply a mistake from not …

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Thanksgiving and the Blog
The De-apocalypticized Jesus of the Gospel of John

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Comments

  1. fishician  November 7, 2018

    In a language/communication field such as yours I can see how easy it would be to hear or even read things incompletely or inaccurately and come away with a wrong idea. It’s one thing to ask you personally about such things as this person did, but I hate to see people who misrepresent what you, or anyone else says, either because they don’t take the time to listen and read carefully, or because it serves their purposes to misrepresent (even though some claim to highly value truth!). Keep up the good work – most of us are listening carefully!

  2. brenmcg  November 7, 2018

    I think for anyone who has written so much and has so many talks/debates online it would be possible to find unintended contradictions if you going searching for them.

  3. godspell  November 7, 2018

    Is there a single known instance from that period of someone who never learned to read or write dictating a book to scribes?

    Maybe some barbarian chieftain, but not sure why he’d be doing that.

    • Bart
      Bart  November 9, 2018

      Nope.

    • talmoore
      talmoore  November 9, 2018

      Considering the fact that the vast majority of human beings during the 1st century were illiterate, and the fact that countless documents still had to be created for various reasons — from legal to logistical — it would be safe to assume that, therefore, the vast majority of documents from that time were, more or less, dictated.

      • Bart
        Bart  November 11, 2018

        It’s actually more complex than that. Most legal documents were not dictated, for example, but a person would explain what was needed and the scribe would follow the protocols to come up with the appropriate text.

      • godspell  November 11, 2018

        If a person isn’t able to read and write, how likely is it that he/she is going to be in a position to be dictating anything to a scribe? How would he/she have developed the habits of mind that would lead that person to even wanting to write a book? It’s hard enough for most literate people to organize themselves to the point where they could write one themselves.

        When you see an oral history of some kind–let’s say the recollections and religious philosophy of Black Elk, as transcribed and adapted by John G. Neihardt–it’s usually a case of the scholar going to the illiterate person, getting him/her to talk, writing it down, then putting it in some kind of order, and often adding his/her own ideas to the mix.

        Somebody capable of dictating a whole book–and having it come out in reasonably coherent form–is probably capable of learning to read and write himself. To be sure, oral traditions also require discipline and memory, but such people don’t tend to seek out somebody to write down their words. For two reasons:

        1)As with the Celtic bards or shanachies, that which is truly sacred should never be written down–the Celts had writing, but never used it for their myths. It was Christian monks who preserved the last remants of that tradition for posterity, adding an easily discerned gloss to make it clear they themselves didn’t believe in these older gods (but aren’t the stories great?)

        2)They’d be out of a job. It’s like a portrait painter helping somebody invent the camera.

  4. mikezamjara  November 8, 2018

    When is it going to be your next live debate?

  5. HenriettePeterson  November 8, 2018

    1. Could this be the case with 1 and 2 Peter? Those who penned them were scribes, different scribes, both bilingual. Peter speaks the message in Aramaic, the scribe takes some notes and then composes the letter in Greek. When s/he’s done s/he reads the letter out loud to Peter translating every sentence back to Aramaic. Peter corrects a sentence here and there. The letter is then finished and sent.
    2. You often say that good literacy included the art of composition. If it was common to dictate then the author himself had to compose everything in his head in advance. Isn’t that quite difficult? I can’t imagine writing an essay just by creating it *in my head* and dictating it without going back to certain paragraphs, re-reading and changing parts. I simply find it impossible to *dictate* a flawless text in one run.

    • Bart
      Bart  November 9, 2018

      I have tried to show in some of my writings why the idea of separate scribes/secretaries doesn’t work. Just search for “secretary” here on the blog and you’ll see a post on it. And yes, dictating was difficult; but it used to be a much more common way of writing (back when we were kids, think: dictaphone!)

    • Iskander Robertson  November 10, 2018

      “1. Could this be the case with 1 and 2 Peter? Those who penned them were scribes, different scribes, both bilingual. Peter speaks the message in Aramaic, the scribe takes some notes and then composes the letter in Greek. When s/he’s done s/he reads the letter out loud to Peter translating every sentence back to Aramaic. Peter corrects a sentence here and there. The letter is then finished and sent.”

      if we have no aramaic text to compare to the greek, how do we know in the year 2018 , what is accurate and what is not?

      • HenriettePeterson  November 13, 2018

        In that scenario the scribe would have taken notes in Greek, translating Peter’s words spoken in Aramaic right away. But at the moment the arguments for 1 and 2 Peter being forgeries seem more plausible to me.

        Bart, I read all the blogs after searching “secretary,” but what strikes me is the level of intellectual lack it somehow implies the ancients had. I mean, I learned to write when I was just 5 years old by observing my brother who was already going to school at the time. I studied entire subjects in a non-native language between 6-10 years of age (this included reading and writing). Of course these were not theological ones, but had I grown up listening to theology every Sabbath I think that the ability to write would just give me a way to express what would have been a huge part of my thinking system already. Yet, when thinking of the ancients we’re saying they were unable to learn to read or write. I get the fact that financial support was a necessity (and rare at the same time), but why do we suppose that once someone had a sponsor it would have taken ages to learn? Kids learn to read and write these days. Clever kids can write interesting essays at a low age. If John was already speaking Greek (let’s say he picked it up some 5-10 years after Jesus’ death while travelling) why are we so certain he couldn’t learn to read and write if he had a donor or was motivated himself to gather enough resources to do so? This can be even empirically verified. We just need to observe an illiterate person who moves to a foreign country, learns to speak the language and then give him an education opportunity and see how fast he learns to read write and compose.

        • Pattylt  November 13, 2018

          I just want to point out that learning to read, write and speak a foreign language are much easier the younger we are. Brain elasticity is wide in our youth and becomes less and less as we age. An excellent example is an immigrant family learning the language of their new country. The children will become completely fluent quickly, the parents will often have a usable knowledge but easily picked out as a none native speaker and the grandparents will struggle to learn basic sentences. To me, this is one of the biggest reasons I don’t buy it that John later learned Greek and had the ability to write a Gospel in Koine at an advanced age. Brain science shows us that this just doesn’t happen.

  6. Pattycake1974
    Pattycake1974  November 8, 2018

    I see criticisms by people who say you’re being disingenuous and/or lying. I think part of the reason that happens is exactly what you’ve described here: they have misunderstood your position and what you’ve said in a debate or written in one of your books. There have been times where you’ve changed your mind about something, but you always inform the audience when that’s the case.

    There was a part in the most recent debate with Licona where the two of you disagree about the use of scribes and secretaries in the ancient world. One thing I wish you would have mentioned is in what specific capacity a scribe or a secretary would have been used and why it would be unreasonable to think a scribe would have composed a Gospel. (If you did, then I missed it or forgot!) I vaguely recall some of the reasons from Hezser’s book, but I think it might be helpful if the subject comes up again.

    • Bart
      Bart  November 9, 2018

      I talk about that at length in my books on Forgery. I can’t recall if I mentioned it in the debate or not.

  7. francis  November 8, 2018

    Dr Ehrman. Where did Jesus come up with the god of love. Didn’t he worship the hateful, jealous god that the other Jewish people?. If he was one with this hateful god where did the love come from?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 9, 2018

      No, the Jewish people have never worshiped a hateful God. The God of love is the one found in the Old Testament. He is also a God of justice, but so too is the God of Jesus, who is soon to destroy this world and all the people who oppose him!

  8. RonaldTaska  November 8, 2018

    I have been following your work (books, posts, Great Courses) for a very long time and have never, ever even thought that you were saying different things in different places. Your explanation is a good and sufficient one. You may have ruffled some feathers, but for many, like myself, you have breathed life into our questions. Finally, here is someone, you, who really gets what has been troubling me about the Bible for decades and is putting it into readable words, not theological/faith jargon. And you always seem to treat other dissenting views with more respect than I, for one, can muster: An example being the courteous things you said about the above questioner. Hang in there! And, above all, keep going! And don’t burn out!

  9. fishician  November 8, 2018

    (Excuse me for double-dipping with a 2nd entry!) This actually relates to your recent post on the growth of early Christianity: do you see a parallel with the growth of the influence of evangelicals in today’s society? (Tabor recently posted an article about the influence of evangelicals even in the area of Biblical studies.) Specifically, the early Christians were exclusive, if you converted you had to leave behind your old gods, whereas the pagans were inclusive, so they gradually lost ground. Today the evangelicals are exclusive in thinking they are the true prophets of God and everyone should believe as they do, and therefore are more assertive than those who are more liberal in their views and allow others to have different beliefs. And the effect seems to be that the evangelicals have a disproportionate influence in our society, even though they are not only a minority in our country but even a minority within Christianity.

    • Bart
      Bart  November 9, 2018

      Interesing idea. I guess the key difference is that evangelicals are not growing at an impressive rate, at least in this country; they may be taking over in terms of culture, but not so much in terms of numbers.

  10. gavriel  November 8, 2018

    I find it very strange that key players among Jesus’ disciples, for instance Peter and James did not intentionally become involved with scribes, possibly bilingual , who could put their memories on paper. Peter must have understood the practical efficiency of a collection of sayings that could be distributed to various communities, right? Although illiterate, he must have sensed the utility of the written word. Do you think there is a fair chance that so actually happened and that these documents, although lost, came to be incorporated into the later gospels or Q?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 9, 2018

      Yes, it does seem strange to us, but it’s because written records are part of the core of our existence and daily lives. For illiterate fishermen in rural Galilee, texts played almost no role in their lives (outside of the Hebrew Scriptures read in synagogue once a week)

  11. RRomanchek  November 8, 2018

    Yeah! It’s sometimes amazing to read exam question answers about the stuff I said in class.

  12. caesar  November 9, 2018

    The conservative scholars who attack your work (like the Ehrman Project) raise some typical objections to your work. Do you think the objections are reasonable for the most part?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 9, 2018

      Some of them I find, well, amazing. But some are points that could be intelligently debated. If you have any in particular you’d like me to address, I’d be happy to.

  13. jmmarine1  November 9, 2018

    The criticism I have heard is that the specifics of your phrasing of problem issues within the bible are worded in such a way that they are designed to make a maximum (negative) impact on the young(er) Christian hearer/readers who interact with your books/lectures, and that this is on purpose and ultimately designed to erode/destroy faith. This was why, or so I was told, many evangelicals felt the need for a sustained response to your work. This sort of negative phrasing is what was transmitted to me as the ‘pastoral problem of Bart Ehrman,’ and that it was intentional and purpose-driven (you were not simply an objective, historical scholar). I wonder if you have ever dealt with this particular understanding of your work?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 9, 2018

      It’s always hard for me to know how to react to this kind of objection without seeing specifically what they are referring to. Some of my comments, such as “There are more differences in our manuscripts than there are words in the New Testament” were ones I heard in seminary, by my beloved and very committed conservative Christian professor Bruce Metzger. But somehow if I say those words, they are seen as insensitive and sensationalizing. My view is that there is a lot of projection going on. (I can tell the *same* jokes we used to tell at Moody Bible Institute, when people thought they were funny, but now that I’m in a different setting people find the very same jokes, told in exactly the same way, offensive!)

      • jmmarine1  November 9, 2018

        If you’d care to see my reply to the people who leveled this criticism, I can make it available to you via email.

      • Pattycake1974
        Pattycake1974  November 11, 2018

        I’ve seen Dr. Kruger’s criticisms from the Ehrman Project. He claims your positions within the field are not dominant views and never have been: Jesus as an apocoplyptic prophet, numerous variants in the NT that should make one doubt its integrity or that we can’t know what was originally written, and how historians evaluate miracles.

        First of all, parents wouldn’t be sending their kids to UNC if they were worried about their children’s spiritual welfare being damaged. And if parents or pastors were specifically concerned about your class, then students can choose a different class or not take the class at all. They could even sign up for the class, decide it’s not for them after all, and drop it.

        I read the book, Truth Matters, which was a warning to young adults taking your classes. One of the authors focused on *how* you reach students which is by forming a connection with them (I’m your friend!) and by relating your own experiences as a Christian (I was just like you once—an evangelical Christian). If I’m remembering correctly, this author’s daughter took your class and (I’m guessing) didn’t like what she learned. The problem I found with his book is there’s the suggestion that his daughter had a certain type of experience in your class—you forming this personal connection with the students to gain their trust. He never explicitly says this was his daughter’s experience, and in my opinion, it’s because he’s telling half-truths. I found the book to be cleverly deceptive.

        When someone says, “There’s more differences in our manuscripts than words,” I look at who is saying it and the motivation behind it. I formulate pictures of meaning of those words in my mind, so I do get different impressions based on who is saying it. If Richard Carrier says those words, my impression is automatically negative. If a layperson says it, I feel neutral. So, you saying those words and Metzger saying those words leaves different types of impressions based on the attitude of the individual toward the speaker.

        • Pattycake1974
          Pattycake1974  November 11, 2018

          Adding to my last comment—

          I don’t believe you’re relating personal experiences as a former Christian to students or that you’re gaining their trust in order to deceive them. The book never explicitly says these things, but it leaves the reader to make erroneous inferences that this is what’s happening in the classroom. That’s why I said it’s cleverly deceptive.

        • godspell  November 11, 2018

          I’m trying to grasp the concept that there’s something called ‘The Ehrman Project’–quite an homage, in its way. “This Ehrman is convincing a lot of people. Something must be done!”

          There have been a lot of influential scholars in various disciplines who have sold a lot of books. Offhand, I can’t think of a group being set up specifically to critique any of them.

          Like, there’s no Stephen Hawking Project. He’s sold way more books than Bart, and hardly anybody is qualified to know if he’s just making **** up to kill time. Which a theoretical physicist would be uniquely qualified to do. What we were talking about?

        • talmoore
          talmoore  November 12, 2018

          The Evangelical critics of Dr. Ehrman are engaging in psychological projection. Since these are the tactics that Evangelicals use to lure in and quash the doubts of converts to their faith, they simply assume that Bart is engaging in the same tactics for his own purposes (whatever they seem to thing they are).

          The fact of the matter is that it’s very difficult for cult members (and, yes, I’m calling Evangelical Christianity a cult) to de-program themselves from within the cult. They have to removed themselves from their tribal environment, to listen to the self-reinforcing rhetoric and propaganda from the outside with disinterest, before they are able to see and appreciate their misapprehensions and tribal predilections. I’m not saying this so be insulting. Unfortunately, sometimes the truth hurts.

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