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On Being Controversial

I woke up this morning thinking I’d like to start finishing out this little mini-thread on Misquoting Jesus by talking about how I never thought of anything in the book being particularly controversial, even though it struck a lot of people that way.  I was going to call the post “On Being Controversial.”  And then I thought Wait a minute: That sounds familiar!  And I checked it out, and I wrote almost exactly that post some three years ago.   So, rather than reinventing the wheel, I give it here.

After this, in my next post, I’ll explain how one claim that I do make about the manuscripts among the New Testament *is* controversial — not one I make (to a general audience) in Misquoting Jesus but one I make in scholarly contexts, one that really irritates some (a lot) of my colleagues.


In this post I am going to take a bit of time out to do some self-reflection.   An issue I’ve been puzzling over for some time is the fact that people keep referring to my work as “controversial.”    I hear this all the time.  And truth be told, I’ve always found it bit odd and a disconcerting.   This past week I’ve had two people tell me that they know that I “like to be controversial.”   That’s actually not the case at all.   One person told me that she had seen a TV show where someone had said that they didn’t believe that Jesus existed, and she thought that was right up my alley.   I didn’t bother to tell her that I had written an entire book arguing that Jesus certainly did exist.  She simply assumed that this was the sort of view that I myself would have and delight in making public.

The reason I find that the idea I’m controversial is that my views about the historical Jesus, the authorship of the books of the New Testament, the Greek manuscript tradition of the New Testament, the relationship of orthodoxy and heresy in early Christianity, the rise of early Christology, and on and on – these are views that are not particularly strange in the academy.  I *acquired* almost all of these views .  With respect to every one of them, what I talk about in my writings is what I myself have learned.   Very rarely in my popular writings do a I put out a view that is unusual and untested in the academic world.

I have done so on occasion, and when I do the response I get from other scholars is very interesting and a bit amusing.   If I advance a thesis in a popular book that is not widely shared among scholars (e.g., in my How Jesus Became God book, where I advanced the idea – which I did not invent myself, but came to agree with from the writings of two other scholars, but which is not a view widely held in the field – that the apostle Paul understood Christ to have originally been an angelic being who became human) some critics objected that I shouldn’t be saying something in a popular book  that does not represent widely accepted scholarship.  The reason this objection is amusing to me is that these very same critics are the same ones who object to my popular books because they “don’t say anything new.”  So, well, how can they have it both ways exactly?

In any event, I may be on the relatively left side of scholarship, but this, that, or the other view I have is widely held in the guild among everyone who is not a religiously conservative Christian.   So why am I, in particular, under attack for being controversial?

What some scholars criticize me for are not my statements but my “tone.”  I’m not sure how one gauges tone.   But when I say things that other scholars who are not controversial say, I’m charged with having a haughty and cynical tone.   Just as one example, some critics have charged me with being excessive and over the top and sensationalistic when, in my book Misquoting Jesus, I wrote that “there are more variants in the manuscripts of the New Testament than there are words in the New Testament.”    Apart from the fact that the statement is true, the line itself is one that I borrowed wholesale from my own teacher, Bruce Metzger!  He was a conservative Christian scholar that almost precisely no one found excessive, over the top, and sensational – let alone controversial!

I have a good reason for thinking that people consider my views controversial when in fact they are not controversial (and when I don’t mean them to be controversial).  That is this:  When I first published my college-level textbook, The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings in 1997, no one who reviewed it thought that it was the least bit controversial, off-putting, over the top, cynical, offensive, snarky, insensitive or anything else negative.   It quickly became the bestselling book on the market.  It still is today.  But professors who use it have, over the past seven or eight years, *started* to complain about its “tone” as being over the top and insensitive, even though the parts they complain about (in the current 6th edition) are the parts that I haven’t changed from when I published the first edition eighteen years ago! The words haven’t changed.  But my public persona apparently has changed.  So the words themselves, in my view, are not controversial.  But because *I’m* controversial some scholars charge me with trying to be controversial with words that they used to think were not controversial even though they are the same words!!

It seems to come as a surprise to people that I don’t try to be controversial.  It simply isn’t one of my goals.   I actually don’t enjoy being controversial and would prefer it if I weren’t.  I’d much rather that people read my work and say something like, “Hmmm.   Good point!  I hadn’t seen it that way before.”

I think the reasons I get *interpreted* as being controversial  are (a) I say things publicly that other scholars just say to themselves and one another (these same scholars pull their punches when they are talking to a public audience); and even more important (b) I try to make the way I present things *interesting* to people.   To make things interesting one has to highlight what is intriguing about them.   But what is intriguing and interesting about scholarship almost always is, necessarily, information that people generally don’t know or haven’t thought about.  And so if a compelling or (even just) strong case is made for a position that others have not generally heard (e.g.: there are more variants in the manuscripts than words in the NT), it is thought that you are going out of your way to shock people rather than to do the work of (otherwise dry) scholarship.

Scholarship, in all fields, can be incredibly dry.   I believe in making scholarship interesting.  I don’t do it to be controversial.  I do it to get people interested.  But as many people as get interested, there seem to be more who get upset.   I’m very sorry to see that happen.  But I’m not about to make my public scholarship dull, uninteresting, or inaccessible to public audiences so that no one will get offended!

Members of the blog can get posts 5-6 times a week.  If you were a member, you could too!  So why not join?  There’s not downside.  It costs little, gives a lot, and raises a ton of money for charity.  

Do We KNOW the Original Words of the NT?
Do the Differences in Our Manuscripts Matter?



  1. NulliusInVerba
    NulliusInVerba  February 4, 2018

    Perhaps you are seen by some as attacking a sacred cow… uh, book.

  2. Avatar
    Seeker1952  February 4, 2018

    Is one significant reason that Tatian’s Diatessaron (the 2nd century synthesis of all four gospels into one) didn’t catch on that it made too obvious the differences, inconsistencies, and contradictions among the four?

    I suppose other reasons are that the four gospels were thought to have been written by eyewitnesses and should therefore be sacred; or maybe that its use was never geographically widespread?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 5, 2018

      It is normally thought to have


      over the differences; my hunch is that the names of the other Gospels made them too compelling to be given up.

  3. Avatar
    jhague  February 4, 2018

    Do the scholars who pull their punches when speaking publicly do so because they do not want to be publicly called out for sharing information that will “confuse” lay people and for being controversial?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 5, 2018

      That’s one reason; another is that many of them do not do a lot of public speaking.

  4. Avatar
    AlbertHodges  February 4, 2018

    Dear Bart:

    This post is not meant to be disrespectful but rather the honest criticism of someone who joined your blog to learn from you. I still do. However, I think I find fault with the idea that you blog about here as well as want to share with you what I found so disappointing in your blog….which I assume you consider to be an important part of your work.

    First, I have NO experience with scholarly writing, but lots of experience in reading it. There is no way you cannot be aware of the impact your books, blogs and YT posts will have on those who are interested in the subject of Jesus, the New Testament, Christian Origins, etc. Most people are interested in your writings because of their curiosity about Christ and/or the Bible. Most of those people are those who BELIEVE on some level that Jesus was God and the Bible is the Word of God. Your writings, are full of a great deal of honest, factual scholarship are at the same time meant to establish a narrative that will threaten some, especially those whose faith was built on the false, non-historical idea that all Scripture is without error, even in its word choice, history, linguistics, etc. There is no way that you do not know this. This is very similar to the person who causes drama by asking seemingly innocent questions knowing full well that the response will stir indignation and consternation. I am not saying that there is anything wrong with that…but you need to own it.

    Also, go back on watch some of your smug attitudes and responses during interviews and debates on Youtube. Again, I am not condemning you for these…I get it. But many people whose faith you are challenging will see this as you taunting them or mocking them. For them, their world view and belief system is being attacked…for you, you are trying to make a point over some text or belief and doesn’t impact you. However, you will never convince me that you do not recognize that or relish such reactions.

    From my personal experience on this blog, I clearly remember you posting several posts regarding Pontius Pilate, portraying him as a vindictive, cruel man. You made a big deal about how he never would have allowed the first disciples of Jesus to take His body off the cross. That they were not important, numerous or powerful enough to have that kind of influence with Pilate. Will not disagree with you about it as I have no idea how cruel Pilate was but totally agree Christ’s followers at that time were few.

    However, was Pilate capable of taking a bribe? Is a cruel, evil man capable of being bought off in such a matter when whatever he does, he does not believe it to have much significance since Christ’s followers or few and powerless? No gospel writer ever claimed that Pilate released the body because of the influence of Jesus or His followers. What every gospel writer did claim was that Joseph of Arimethea arranged for that…a man who was wealthy and influential in Jerusalem. Is a evil ruler capable of accepting a bribe in that case?

    My point here is this. Among your contributions to scholarly research, you sometimes resort to creating strawmen that simply do not exist for not other purpose except to undermine in the public the faith of those who take you seriously or to give a laugh to those who come to you seeking ammunition to ridicule believers.

    This is why you are considered controversial, in my opinion. I continue to learn from you and enjoy your blog. However, your claim you don’t seek to be controversial is disingenuous, in my opinion.

    • Avatar
      dragonfly  February 6, 2018

      The question of whether Pilate would accept a bribe is a strawman.

  5. Avatar
    godspell  February 4, 2018

    I would think that the main problem is that you reached a wider audience than serious historical scholars usually do. There’s a fear when that happens that a ‘fringe’ view will become the accepted view. It’s a legitimate fear. People often draw lifelong conclusions on a given area of history based on one book, because how many is the average layperson going to read?

    Not that this remotely counts as serious scholarship, but how many times have you had to correct misperceptions spread by “Holy Blood, Holy Grail” or “Deconstructing Jesus”, to name just two.

    So scholars, whether ‘left’ or ‘right’ (terms I honestly believe should have stayed in the field of French Revolutionary studies, where they make sense), can sometimes overreact to a spirited defense of a non-mainstream view. Or a view that is non-mainstream in their specific clique.

    I saw nothing extreme or even slightly wacky when I read Misquoting Jesus, but I’m not in the field.

  6. Avatar
    Silver  February 4, 2018

    When you say that there are more variants than words in the NT I assume you are referring to the TOTAL number of words. Is it known how many different words there are in the NT? If this number is known does that include different tenses of verbs for example or do words coming from the same stem count as one?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 5, 2018

      I think the number (depending on which manuscripts one follows, so there will be some slight differences) is around 138,000. But maybe someon on the blog knows for sure!

    • talmoore
      talmoore  February 5, 2018

      If you copy and paste the entire NT into Word you can do a word count.

  7. Jeff
    Jeff  February 4, 2018

    The hyperventilated responses to “Misquoting” took you by surprise because nothing in the book was new or particularly controversial to your close colleagues.

    Charles Murray made almost the EXACT SAME STATEMENT about the reactions to his and Herrnstein’s book “The Bell Curve”. They, like you, simply took accepted scholarly knowledge and made it accessible to the masses.

    I call this Phenomenon The Prometheus Effect. You and Murray have dared to share with the unlettered rabble that which belongs to the gods alone. For that you must suffer calumny, libel and excoriation (not to mention liver problems)..

  8. Telling
    Telling  February 4, 2018

    Twentieth century Court decisions have twisted a constitutional religious protection into a religious prohibition, by way of a misapplied Establishment Clause interpretation. I’ve read, for example, that the changing of BC/AD to BCE/CE is founded upon such hostility, a part of the greater effort to eradicate Christianity. Your critical analysis of the New Testament Bible lives under this backdrop. Such is unfortunate, for your published research has legitimate foundation, and you are doing a good service to religion, I think, as any light exposing untruths and inaccuracies surely does. Do you have any feelings as to this bias which is of a political nature, whether you recognize such bias exists, whether it is fair, and whether, or how much, it influences opposition to you?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 5, 2018

      No, I don’t think there’s any hostility. It’s just that for most of the people living in the world (including me, for what it’s worth) it doesn’t make sense to say “In the Year of Our Lord” 2018 (which, of course, what A.D. 2018 means)

      • Telling
        Telling  February 5, 2018

        It’s a technicality, though. The year 2018 CE is still 2,018 years since what the Pope estimated to be the birth of Jesus, so I think it doesn’t really mean anything, just causes a little confusion where there had been no problem at all. If it had been an existing world standard that would be different, but I havn’t heard that it was. And what does “common era” really indicate? It wasn’t common to the orient. I personally think changing longstanding history with only a political motivation is utterly stupid.

        • Bart
          Bart  February 6, 2018

          I suppose people who are Christian don’t think it means much of anything in particular — but many non-Christians don’t know why they should suggest that Jesus is the Lord every time they simply want to give the date something happened.

          • Telling
            Telling  February 6, 2018

            I personally doubt most people even know what AD means, after all, it’s in Latin. As an engineer, I’m also bothered that the updated letters are somewhat confusing; too much alike, (CE/BCE). I sometimes have to count the letters and remember that BC is 3 letters and AD is 2 letters. And that leads to another problem: the number of character should be equal. A problem would arise when using a form allowing for exact number ot characters. You wouldn’t know whether to left or right justify CE. So, as I see it, for political reasons they “fixed what ain’t broke”, and screwed it up to boot.

            I appreciate your comments.

          • Bart
            Bart  February 7, 2018

            You’re probably right. But I myself know what it means! And if it doesn’t matter what it means, then I don’t see the argument against changing it.

          • Telling
            Telling  February 7, 2018

            It’s a curious thing though; an entire civilization founded upon an event we call the Crucifixion that cannot possibly be true, and makes no sense anyway even if it was — Substantial historical and scholarly research century after century about all the many details of the event, nobody allowed to question it, people thrown into prison for disbelieving, even killed. And then Martin Luther King (also Ghandi) uses some of the Jesus sayings to successfully overcome Southern segregation, and yet the central element of the Christian message — the Crucifixion story — having literally nothing to do with the successful outcome (it was peaceful resistance). Mind-boggling!

    • Avatar
      Pattylt  February 5, 2018

      I understand that that anything that removes the “pride of place” that Christianity has enjoyed is often uncomfortable for believing Christians but often when things are done to secularize something it is not done to “eradicate” Christianity but to bring things in alignment with the fact that this is a secular nation and Christianity no longer should have favored status. Yes, our forefathers were predominantly Christian and our history is of a Christian culture but they intentionally left as many traces of religion out of our founding documents as possible. We are so diverse in beliefs now that to continue to give a pride of place to Christianity is unamerican to many. I know of only a very few atheists that want to eradicate Christianity. Most just want a society that acknowledges the diversity of beliefs of Americans with privilege to none.

      • Telling
        Telling  February 7, 2018

        Eradicating the past for some greater good is probably almost always a bad idea. What about Roman influence? Maybe someone is offended by the months of July and August, named for the first Roman emperors. What about American Indian names like Massachusetts? Is Maryland offensive being named after the British Queen Mary? Now lets hit on Christianity again: Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Rafael, San Fernando, probably easily a third of California cities are named after some Catholic saint or name. Should we tear down California’s 21 historic California missions, some of which are state parks now, others still holding Catholic services? It’s mere pick and choose as to what historial thing you find so offensive. Martin Luther King was a Christian preacher teaching the ways and methods of Jesus. Should we rename all the streets and schools that were so wrongly named after him? The argument will be that King, although preaching and acting in the name of Jesus, had a secular purpose. But how could King be giving a non-secular message from the secular man Jesus? What person sainted by the Church did not have a secular purpose? There would be few long-honored names that didn’t have a secular purpose. So I think it’s all a joke, founded upon political motivation.

        We would be wiser to honor longstanding history and not go about judging, generally.

  9. Avatar
    Franz Liszt  February 4, 2018

    I think part of the potential controversy can be caused by lay people not being familiar with the technicalities and getting the wrong idea from your tone. For instance, these are all quotes from the review of Misquoting Jesus on Commonsenseatheism.com

    “What is Ehrman’s fault is how astonishingly misleading his book is. He writes that “there are more variations among our manuscripts than there are words in the New Testament” (p 90), and that the manuscripts “differ from one another in so many places that we don’t even know how many differences there are” (p 10). Ehrman gives the impression that there are so many variants in our manuscripts that we could never know what the New Testament authors originally wrote. But of course Ehrman knows (p 87) that the vast number of textual variants we have is a blessing not a curse, because his books for a scholarly audience spend every page using those variants to reconstruct the original text.”

    “Compare the pessimism of Misquoting Jesus with the optimism expressed in Ehrman and Metzger’s The Text of the New Testament, page 126:
    ‘Besides textual evidence derived from New Testament Greek manuscripts and from early versions, the textual critic compares numerous scriptural quotations used in commentaries, sermons, and other treatises written by early church fathers. Indeed, so extensive are these citations that if all other sources for our knowledge of the text of the New Testament were destroyed, they would be sufficient alone for the reconstruction of practically the entire New Testament.'”

    So while the statements made are correct, and amongst a scholarly audience there would be no controversy, laypeople (even atheist bloggers who do this sort of thing a lot) aren’t ‘in the know’ in that sense, and the language you use means something else to someone who doesn’t have the background knowledge.

  10. Avatar
    RoddyN  February 4, 2018


    While you may have some haters out there, I can attest, your work does not go unappreciated. I have learned more from you in the past six months or so then I ever did from any blowhard with a Bible in hand. There are a lot of issues you brought to the public eye others were seemingly content keeping in private. I personally thank you for it.

  11. Avatar
    Adam0685  February 4, 2018

    Started reading your triumph of Christianity book. It’s now in the major bookstores where I live in Toronto, Ontario. Enjoying the book!

    • Bart
      Bart  February 5, 2018

      Really? Are you sure? It’s not *supposed* to be there!! (Pub date is Feb. 13).

  12. Avatar
    cmdenton47  February 4, 2018

    I feel your books are only controversial because they put right out there the undeniable fact that some Biblical things aren’t true. Why does my (Episcopal) rector still have lectors reading that Colossians and Ephesians and Hebrews were “letters from Paul” when the rector knows better? Why does the visiting priest (an expert) actually talk about Luke as being the author of “Luke’s Gospel” ? Why does the Episcopal Church (admittedly a liberal mainstream church) recommend the story of Noah’s Ark and the Exodus as appropriate areas of concentration for children’s programs when they know these things never happened? I believe it’s because they’re afraid honesty would see the pews empty.

    • Avatar
      Franz Liszt  February 5, 2018

      I don’t think those last two parts are very fair. Scholars almost always call the author of Luke-Acts “Luke,” just for the sake of simplicity. Even Bart will call them Luke, Matthew, Mark, and John almost always unless he’s specifically discussing issues of authorship.

      As to the Noah’s Ark and Exodus stories. If the Episcopal church views these stories as teaching important moral or theological lessons, why shouldn’t they teach from them? Was it a mistake that I studied the Aeneid in college because it never actually happened?

  13. Avatar
    fishician  February 4, 2018

    Jesus seems to have offended people, so you’re in good company.

  14. Telling
    Telling  February 4, 2018

    In my message I didn’t intended to say the Court had created the BC/BCE designations, but rather that Christianity is under assault by the Court and by elements of academia, my question being whether you are receiving unfounded hostility under this backdrop.

  15. Avatar
    Silver  February 5, 2018

    Am I correct in understanding that when you argue that there are massive numbers of textual variants your main point is not that these, in the main, alter the theology of the NT (not withstanding the issues you raise in the ‘Orthodox Corruption…’) but that they simply show that scripture cannot be the inspired, infallible and inerrant word of God? If this is your basic premis it is evident that those such as Dan Wallace very much twist your argument.

    • Bart
      Bart  February 5, 2018

      No, that’s just one of my arguments. Another argument is that these variants often change the very meaning of the passage they can be found in. Another is that seeing how they were changed can tell us important information about the scribes who were changing them. And there are other arguments.

  16. Avatar
    mannix  February 5, 2018

    Let’s take the authorship of the Gospels. The New American Bible (NAB; Catholic) was published almost 50 years ago. In the introductions to all 4 Gospels, the view that the authorship of each one is NOT that “traditionally” ascribed is clearly put forth. It is disappointing that this is rarely or never mentioned to the “faithful” members of the Church. Maybe, in defense, the clergy would respond (ala Jack Nicholson), “You can’t HANDLE the truth!!”

  17. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  February 5, 2018

    Looking forward to the next post.

  18. Avatar
    doug  February 5, 2018

    I always chuckle when someone criticizes one of your books by claiming it doesn’t say anything new. Given the widespread ignorance about early Christianity, there is much in your books that is new to a great many people (myself included). Also – please keep making it interesting!

  19. Avatar
    anthonygale  February 5, 2018

    Do you ever find that some people will criticize you no matter what it is you say? I don’t mean that as in there is always someone who will disagree, but as in there are certain people who will disagree no matter what? If so, what are your thoughts on folks like that?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 5, 2018

      Yes, I do find that. And my thought is that people like that are very … disagreeable!

  20. Avatar
    hoshor  February 5, 2018

    Bart, when I watch videos of your debates, I can’t help but notice that the announcer of the debate (more times than not it seems) pronounces your name as Bart “Air”man. In my mind, I always thought that was a subtle tactic used to make your name sound like the verb err, as if to suggest that your ideas are mistaken or even sinful!

    Have you ever noticed this, or are you just used to people mispronoucing your name?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 5, 2018

      It’s been that way forever — as far back as I’ve heard people pronounce my name. It’s because people intuit enough German to know that Ehr sounds like Air. We’ve anglicize the pronunciation, but it doesn’t bother me one way or the other.

      • Avatar
        HawksJ  February 6, 2018

        So, what is the proper pronunciation- ‘air’ or ‘err’?

        I thought it was ‘air’.

        • Bart
          Bart  February 6, 2018

          We ourselves have always said Err.

          • Avatar
            Wilusa  February 6, 2018

            I don’t think everyone pronounces “err” the same way. So I’ve always thought of pronouncing your name like the word “ermine.”

          • Bart
            Bart  February 7, 2018

            Yup, that’s how I pronounce it too.

          • Avatar
            godspell  February 7, 2018

            To Err is human……

          • Bart
            Bart  February 9, 2018

            Hence my name Err(hu)man

      • Avatar
        rburos  February 6, 2018

        Either way, man koennte es als Kompliment nehmen. . .

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