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Response to my Newsweek Article on Christmas

Earlier this week I posted my Newsweek article on Christmas from four years ago, and several people have asked me what kind of reaction I received.  I made two posts about that at the time.  Here’s the first.  I find this post rather humorous now, years later, since I was obviously being wildly defensive (halfway through the response) before denying I was defensive at all (at the end)!  What funny people we can be….

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My Newsweek article this week has generated a lot of response.  I have no idea what kind of comments they typically get for their stories, but so far, as of now, there have been 559 on mine; and most of them are negative – to no one’s surprise – written by people (conservative evangelicals and fundamenalists for the most part, from what I can tell) who think that the Gospels are perfectly accurate in what they have to say about Jesus – not just at his birth but for his entire life.  A lot of these respondents think that anyone who thinks that the New Testament contains discrepancies is too smart for his or her own good and blind at the same time (not sure how it can go both ways, but there it is).

I’ve also been getting a lot of email from incensed readers, including a sixteen-year old girl who tells me that she is a Pentecostal Christian who has read the Bible 160 times and is now starting her 161st; she was very upset with me and is praying for my soul.

I appreciate the animosity that people feel: I would have felt the same way…

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I appreciate the animosity that people feel: I would have felt the same way in my late teens and early twenties when I too was a Bible believing, born-again, conservative evangelical who thought that Scripture was the inerrant, inspired Word of God.   But education sometimes has its effect, and it certainly did on me.

What I told this earnest 16 year old was that I appreciated her concerns and that I hoped she would continue to seek the truth, and be willing to follow the truth wherever it leads her, even if it leads her away from what she now thinks is true.  If truth is from God, then there is nothing to fear from it.  And if following the truth means rejecting your former beliefs, that’s the price you have to pay for being true both to the truth and to yourself.

I’ve gotten more feisty emails as well, as you might imagine.  Here’s a typical extract:

I have to say, I’ve read and heard a lot of your viewpoints…I find them ridiculous and not well thought out. I feel your “contradictions” and misconceptions are ill informing young people…it’s heart breaking to see a man so utterly bewildered and worse, sharing this “ignorance” with his students.

My response to this person (I think he was a middle-aged believer in the Bible without a lot of knowledge, needless to say, of scholarship) was of a different order, and it is the point that I want to emphasize in this post.  Which is this.

I get criticized a lot for my views, but people (not knowing any better?) act as if my views are highly idiosyncratic and weird and unique to my twisted mind.   But the truth is, my basic views about the Bible are the views that just about every bona fide scholar of the Bible in the Western hemisphere shares, with the exception of very conservative evangelicals, fundamentalists, and, I suppose, (extremely conservative) Roman Catholics.   But if you were to survey the leading biblical scholars of our time, they would virtually to a person (again, apart from the religious conservatives who have theological reasons for wanting the Bible to be infallible) agree with the basic views I have – for example, that there are discrepancies, that many of these cannot be reconciled, and that it’s difficult, as a result, to know what really happened historically in the life of Jesus.

Just to belabor the point, these views are those of every biblical scholar teaching at every major research university in North America that I’m aware of.  Just take your pick.  Ivy League schools: Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Columbia, Cornell, etc.  Other outstanding private colleges and universities: Mount Holyoke to Stanford to … choose any geographically between these two.  And all the major state research universities (at least the ones I know of), whether West Coast – UC Berkeley, University of Washington, University of Oregon; Midwest – Kansas, Texas, Nebraska, Ohio State, Michigan; East Coast – North Carolina State, Florida State, Florida, Virginia.   And on and on and on.  I don’t know of a biblical scholar teaching at a major research university in the country that thinks the Gospel narratives – or the infancy narratives, to be more specific – are free of discrepancies and historically accurate.

Of course – let me stress the point – OF COURSE this does not mean that these views are right.  But it does mean that if I’m wrong (as the populace at large seems to think J ), then we’re all wrong.  All the major scholars at all the major universities — and virtually all the other non-major colleges and universities as well (apart from Christian evangelical schools) — all of us are wrong.  It could be.  I suppose stranger things have happened.

In case anyone wonders, I’m not in a particularly defensive mood just now.  I’m actually enjoying this kind of exchange.  But I do think that it’s important to be clear.  Nothing that I’ve said about the infancy narratives either in Newsweek or on this blog would be a revelation or “news” to a single scholar on the planet.  It’s all old news – the sort of thing we all know, because all of us have studied the material.   The point of the article, and the blog, is to make this scholarly knowledge available to those who have other (arguably much better) things to do with their lives.

 


Is the New Testament Authentic? Readers’ Mailbag December 4, 2016
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Comments

  1. Avatar
    godspell  December 2, 2016

    To be honest, I’m a little surprised people like this still read Newsweek. Isn’t that part of the ‘lamestream media’?

    Maybe in a doctor’s waiting room?

    Or maybe, just maybe, some of this is not the spontaneous reaction of individuals, but is rather the result of certain evangelical groups sending their members a link to the article, and encouraging them to send very negative emails to Newsweek, in hopes of over time intimidating them–and you–into not stating the consensus scholarly opinion outside of scholarly publications (that nobody but scholars ever read).

    No question, there’s a lot of that kind of thing going on right now.

    To be honest, I never read Newsweek myself these days, and it would never occur to me to email them to protest a piece they published, even if I read it.

    The tyranny of the minority can become a real thing, if we let it. These people do not stand for most Christians, let alone most Americans, but they have been encouraged to believe that only they have a right to their opinion on this subject (and many others).

  2. Avatar
    jhague  December 2, 2016

    And the sad thing is that many of the pastors at the conservative churches went through seminary at the universities that you mention. Yet they put the information that they paid for to learn aside and continue to let the uneducated pew warmers be in the dark about what critical scholarship has discovered.

    • Avatar
      Robby  December 5, 2016

      As a former assistant pastor for a non-denominational movement that started in southern California, there is no higher education seminary involved (masters and doctorate’s). Many pastors are home grown lay people or attended “school of ministry” type Bible colleges that offer associate’s degrees. The curriculum is very fundamentalist and doesn’t give a well rounded religion education other than what it’s founder wanted. Historical critical classes definitely are not taught…the pastors just tow the line if they want to remain associated with this “non-denominational” denomination.

  3. Avatar
    The Agnostic Christian  December 2, 2016

    160 times by 16?!? Imaging she comes from an ultra conservative, Fundamentalist homeschooling family, and she learned to read at 4. She would have to have read the Bible every single day for 2 and a half hours per day! With no TV that’s a possibility I guess… If she started at 10 that would have to have been 5 hours a day. Not impossible, but…

    Catherine Booth had read the entire Bible by 12 and I used to think that was impressive.

    But she read the whole Bible? The entire OT? Including the bits about rape, and incest and gruesome murder s and revenges?

    Honestly the more I think about it the more I am appalled at the hypocrisy of parents who say it is a sin for kids to watch TV, but not to fill their minds with the gruesome events of the OT.

    DOUBLE STANDARDS.

    • Avatar
      godspell  December 4, 2016

      True, but honestly–wouldn’t they be better off reading the bible than watching most of what’s on TV now?

      Not only the bible, and not in a strictly literalist mindset, no–but most of the best minds of the past millennia–including great scientists and philosophers, including many eminent non-Christians–have learned great wisdom from the bible.

      It’s the spirit with which you approach it that matters.

      With the shallow entertainments we distract ourselves with, it hardly matters what spirit you approach them with.

      The bible is not the source of most of our present-day troubles and discontents, sorry.

      • Avatar
        The Agnostic Christian  December 5, 2016

        I didn’t say the Bible is the source of most of our present-day troubles and discontents. Christianity has been a source for tremendous good in this world, and it frankly pisses me off when atheists will not honestly acknowledge the good religion has done for the world.

        Honestly though, this type of “the good ol’ days” mentality is fallacious. How many people have lived and died and have been forgotten? Billions. How many truly remembered? Hundreds. Maybe thousands. Great men and woman have always existed and always will. The masses will be forgotten. Including us. Humans are pretty incredible creatures and will use and adapt to the environment around them. A few of them will help propel us into the next level of advancement. With or without the Bible.

    • Avatar
      Saemund  December 5, 2016

      I suppose it’s entirely possible to read even the Old Testament in your early teens—and also before that. You just have to look at the Jehovah’s Witnesses and their children who were born into the religion to see how pious some young people can be. However, I have to agree with two of your points, namely that reading the Bible 160 times by age 16 is highly implausible, and that parents who allow their kids to read the Old Testament are hypocritical when they don’t allow them to watch TV. The Old Testament includes stories that are arguably worse than anything that you see on TV today. Still, they are considered “appropriate” because it’s “religion” and not “entertainment.”

  4. Avatar
    wostraub  December 2, 2016

    Bart — thank you for sharing a few of your more uncomfortable experiences with believers. In regard to the middle-aged believer, I’m not surprised that he/she views knowledge as ignorance and ignorance as faith.

    I’ve studied the New Testament for years (though I have not attained your knowledge of it), and am constantly struck by the degree of biblical ignorance of conservative believers, many in my own family. Their insistence on belief is based almost solely on the “argument from ignorance” fallacy, in which if you cannot prove a negative then it must be true. As you note, they will also turn their ignorance on non-believers, criticizing them for not knowing any better. They then go smugly on their way, feeling they have aced the debate.

    But I see yet another fallacious point of view, one based on adherence to a total ignorance of everything based on what I suspect is a fear of knowledge itself. A dear family member of mine, a devout Christian, will politely listen to my analysis of some illogical biblical story or other, only to cut me off mid-stream when she detects her own brain beginning to see the logic. By the time I’ve eked out the rest of my argument, she’s already rejected it. (I often quote stuff out of your books, and the refrain “Oh no, not Bart Ehrman again!” is becoming a frequent complaint.)

    As you also note, the pursuit of the truth should not deter anyone from going into uncomfortable areas and asking serious questions. Avoiding knowledge and the truth it imparts should not constitute a measure of faith.

  5. Avatar
    Mhamed Errifi  December 2, 2016

    hello Bart

    is it true that the so-called Gospel of St. Barnabas, which, though now regarded as apocryphal, was accepted as authentic and was read in the churches until the year 496 of the Christian era, when it was banned as “heretical” by a decree of Pope Gelasius.

    thanks

  6. talmoore
    talmoore  December 2, 2016

    “I’ve also been getting a lot of email from incensed readers, including a sixteen-year old girl who tells me that she is a Pentecostal Christian who has read the Bible 160 times and is now starting her 161st; she was very upset with me and is praying for my soul.”

    I feel as sorry for that 16 year old girl as I do for Muslim children who are encouraged to memorize the Qur’an. Just imagine what kind of society we would have if children devoted that much time to studying actual history, not to mention math and science.

  7. Avatar
    JoeRoark  December 2, 2016

    The young lady who is reading her Bible for the 161st time, should perhaps try reading it horizontally, perhaps for the first time.

  8. Avatar
    Silver  December 2, 2016

    Perhaps you can help me wth a Nativity related query although not directly related to your post.

    Is there a Latin origin for ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’?
    I saw a reference to this perhaps 50 years ago (in the Readers’ Digest I think) and believe that the suggested meaning for the first line ‘A partridge in a pear tree’ (anglicised from ‘Et parturit in aperto’) was ‘And gave birth in the open’.
    Lines 4&3 (4 collybirds/calling birds and 3 French hens) were rendered as ‘de collibus, descendens’ which translate as ‘coming down from the hills’.
    I do not recall any other lines being given in the source I first saw.
    It seems to me that the Latin words are too similar to the subsequent English version to be a coincidence and it certainly seems more fascinating that perhaps the original may have been a Latin carol (telling of the Holy Family’s journey to Bethlehem and Jesus’ birth ‘in the open’ i.e. a stable instead of an inn) rather than, as I have subsequently been told, some secret aide-memoire to Catholic doctrine during periods of persecution. Perhaps it could simply be a jolly festive song!

  9. Avatar
    doug  December 2, 2016

    As a teen, I believed the Bible was inerrant. It gave me a degree of emotional security. It also gave me what I wanted most – the belief that I was a good person. Since I **really** wanted to believe, I not only blocked out any info that might challenge my belief, but I also believed that those who challenged my belief were evil or dupes of the devil. That is what concerns me now about authoritarian beliefs – reason and compassion take second place (or no place) in relation to the belief.

  10. Avatar
    Pegill7  December 2, 2016

    Bart,

    II know you have great respect for your mentor, Bruce Metzker. I had the pleasure of talking with him just once, a few years after the publication of the New Revised Standard Version of scripture, of which he was the principal editor and author of the preface. I rather naively asked him why the new translation of Luke 14:26 (“Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother….”) had not leaned more towards the less radical statement of Matthew 10:37 ( Whoever loves father and mother more than me….) The footnote to the Luke passage observes, “Hate is used in vigorous, vivid hyperbole; the parallel passage in Mt 10:37 reflects Jesus’ meaning.” This makes sense to me but how do we know which passage is really the intent of Jesus? Would his audience have understood the nature of hyperbole? Would most believers of today understand this? If both Matthew and Luke took this statement from Q, which of these authors changed the supposed words of Jesus? I suppose we can never know.

    • Bart
      Bart  December 4, 2016

      I’m surprised he didn’t give you the more straightforward answer. Luke 14:26 uses the (Greek) word “hate”; Matthew 10:37 does not.

  11. Avatar
    Tempo1936  December 2, 2016

    It is amazing that most educated individuals accept the scientific , post modern analysis In all subjects except biblical studies.

    Many spend hours every week preparing for weekly Bible studies. They study theology And believe they are studying the original words of the disciples and Jesus.
    It’s a form of brainwashing and groupthink That impedes any reasonable communication.
    But your quick wit and communication skills will leave a lasting impression on society
    Have a merry Christmas.?

  12. Avatar
    Hank_Z  December 2, 2016

    I don’t see your reply as being defensive. To me it seems you gave readers information and a perspective many otherwise might never receive. Making your point in a strong way is different than being defensive.

  13. Avatar
    Hormiga  December 2, 2016

    > All the major scholars at all the major universities — and virtually all the other non-major colleges and universities as well (apart from Christian evangelical schools) — all of us are wrong.

    Just like all those scientists who think global warming/climate change is happening! What weight does evidence have when the believers on the other side have belief?

  14. cheito
    cheito  December 2, 2016

    DR Ehrman:

    Your Comment:

    Of course – let me stress the point – OF COURSE this does not mean that these views are right. But it does mean that if I’m wrong (as the populace at large seems to think J ), then we’re all wrong.

    My comment:

    You’re right about the stories concerning the birth of Jesus in the synoptic gospels not being historically accurate. You’re also right that there are discrepancies and contradictions in the rest of the synoptic gospel stories.

    As you well know we can’t know who wrote the gospels nor do we know the real reason they were written, so it’s futile to try and ascertain the truth about what Jesus said and did, or when He was born, or if he was born of a virgin using these sources.

    Personally I trust the gospel of John although I do see that there have been some interpolations and some additions to the original accounts.

    The Jesus that the author of John portrays talks like a person who came from another realm, i.e. heaven.

    I don’t accept the synoptic Gospels as a message from God, but I do believe in the witness and testimony of, Paul, Peter, and the beloved disciple, who was the source for the gospel of John.

    Paul suffered many beatings and persecutions and still continued to preach the gospel of God, concerning His Son Jesus, descendant of David according to the flesh, declared to be the Son Of God by the resurrection from the dead, because,… I believe, He really literally met with the risen Jesus.

    It doesn’t make any sense to me, why a man like Paul would endure such violence and hostility against himself for a message which He himself tried to destroy.

    Out of the 66 books in the protestant bible I accept some of the books as the message of God.

    That’s how I read the books in the bible…

  15. Avatar
    clipper9422@yahoo.com  December 2, 2016

    Do evangelical and fundamentalist leaders organize their followers to orchestrate massive negative responses to articles like yours? Are there email trees to mobilize all these people to respond to anything that contradicts their views? They certainly seem to be a strong presence on the internet and elsewhere. No wonder their favored political candidates win so frequently. Kind of reminds me of the National Rifle Association. I wonder if those of us who disagree with them could learn something from their organizational tactics – if we had the time to do that.

  16. TWood
    TWood  December 2, 2016

    “a sixteen-year old girl who tells me that she is a Pentecostal Christian who has read the Bible 160 times and is now starting her 161st”—and yet she’s never once actually studied it in light of historical and scientific evidence—and she probably never will.

    “I think he was a middle-aged believer in the Bible without a lot of knowledge, needless to say, of scholarship”—yes, but he might have had a rapture dream and then posted a video about it on YouTube that got 300k views!—so he’s got that going for him—which is nice.

    I’m a Christian still, but I’m with you on this… I can’t believe how ignorant mainstream American Evangelicalism is… In your view, why do you think scholarship doesn’t trickle down more into the churches? I have my theory (empty suit authoritarians who cause ordinary Christians to fear heresy and hell which then kills free thinking and free speech within the churches)… I’m sure you’ve got a unique perspective on this… what’s your take on why otherwise smart people are so quick to surrender their minds to popish pied pipers?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 4, 2016

      If I knew the answer to that I could write a best-selling book!

    • talmoore
      talmoore  December 4, 2016

      The simple answer is that people prefer, well, simply answers. If someone — such as, say, an academic — tries to offer them complex, nuanced answers, more offer than not, the average person will choose, rather, to seek out people who offer what ostensibly appears to be more straightforward, easier to grasp answers. So, this being the case, it should be a surprise to no one that if a Christian clergyman began offering up sermons covering detailed examinations of theological minutiae, not to mention calling into question the very tenets underpinning the faith itself, such a clergyman is not going to last very long in the pulpit.

      Think of it in free market terms — supply and demand. The average believer demands easy answers. The supplier of easy answers is going to meet those demands and, for lack of a better term, stay in business, while the supplier of tough and challenging answers is going to go out of business. That’s why Christian clergy do not go into the weeds of the faith, so-to-speak. They stick around by giving the people what they want.

      We don’t just see this with religions. Consider for a second how many people would sooner subscribe to a conspiracy theory rather than the “official” story, simply because, for them, the conspiracy is easy to wrap their heads around. For example, consider how many people would rather believe that aliens built the Great Pyramids, because it’s easier for them to imagine that aliens with advanced techology could build such immense structures rather than ancient human beings (never mind the fact that the Egyptians themselves not only tell us that they built the Great Pyramids, but HOW they built them). Hence why the History Channel will air hours of aliens building the Pyramids shows, but almost never shows about how the Pyramids were actually built. The viewers don’t want the complex, hard to grasp answer of how human beings accomplished such a massive feat. They want the simple answer. Aliens did it.

      • Avatar
        DaveAyres  December 6, 2016

        Let me add to the idea that not only are simple answers highly desirable in the marketplace of ideas, but so is familiarity. Anxiety and fear are two powerful motivations to stick to what is known. Stability and continuity are seductive qualities that say “Don’t change, stick to what you already know.” Stability and continuity are good and necessary qualities to a content and well lived life. But they frequently also wind up being road blocks. Another way of phrasing this: Better the devil you know then the devil you don’t know.

        I don’t believe that the average person is born with the wisdom to understand the danger of that kind of thinking. Worse often times the only way that change comes about is when the pain of not changing (ways of thinking, beliefs, even prejudices) is greater than the anxiety and pain of changing.

        Sometimes that change is motivated by a willingness to question the status quo and take the risk of change. Mostly though it is motivated by pain: emotional and even sometimes physical.

        Since religious beliefs themselves do not produce materially measured results (claims of miracles notwithstanding) and so the lack of material results have no bearing on belief, there usually is nothing else that challenges a person to change their beliefs. Plus since religion is 90% social club and 10% spirtuality (conciously displaying my bias now) the Divine could turn out to be Black, Lesbian, Jewish and born on Mars but most folks would not care.

  17. Avatar
    mjt  December 3, 2016

    Do you have a feel for roughly the number of conservative scholars out there, vs the number of critical scholars? If not, are there a lot more critical scholars? Or is it fairly even in number?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 4, 2016

      It’s a great question. I don’t know how to count!

  18. Avatar
    smackemyackem  December 3, 2016

    Ok…I hate to do this but… Are you familiar with this story?

    “Is this the first written mention of Jesus? 2,000-year-old lead tablets found in a remote cave ARE genuine, claim researchers”

    http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-3985150/Is-written-mention-Jesus-2-000-year-old-lead-tablets-remote-cave-genuine-claim-researchers.html

    • Bart
      Bart  December 4, 2016

      I think I talked about this on the blog some years ago. These have been shown to be fake.

  19. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  December 3, 2016

    Actually, I remember the article and your responses quite well. Sometimes, you are just too hard on yourself. I thought you did a good job with both the article, which I read in Newsweek, and your replies. Any of us who have tried to discuss such issues in churches have experienced similar responses. It can be very frustrating to try to discuss and learn stuff with others.

  20. Pattycake1974
    Pattycake1974  December 3, 2016

    How do you feel about this article now? Would you write it exactly the same way or differently (without compromising the truth) considering the reaction from it?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 4, 2016

      I rather like it. None of the reactions made me think I had said anything I disagree with.

      • Pattycake1974
        Pattycake1974  December 4, 2016

        “I’ve also been getting a lot of email from incensed readers, including a sixteen-year old girl who tells me that she is a Pentecostal Christian who has read the Bible 160 times and is now starting her 161st; she was very upset with me and is praying for my soul.”

        Teenagers are a riot.

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