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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.

 


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Comments

  1. ronaldus67
    ronaldus67  December 4, 2016

    Well, maybe a little defensive. But in the end you are still right! Right? 😉

  2. Avatar
    dankoh  December 4, 2016

    To paraphrase Sinclair Lewis: It is difficult to persuade someone to a different perspective when his belief in immortality depends on his not believing you.

    I would just add that all the scholars you listed are not scholars because they like the sound of the word. They are scholars because they have devoted years to careful, intense study of these materials and spent decades of professional (or occasionally amateur) time trying to understand them. And essentially all of them, after all that study, came to the same conclusion (give or take usual scholarly battles over the head of a pin).

    Also, many scholars started out, as you did, Bart, as a firm and true believer. But true scholarship means following the best evidence and coming up with the best analyses, no matter where they lead.

  3. Avatar
    nassergayed  December 5, 2016

    Merry Christmas Professor Ehrman.
    Here is a tradition from the Coptic Orthodox Church of Egypt that you might find interesting. It’s about Simeon who met the Holy Family in the Temple in Luke 2. He was previously involved in the copying of the Scripture. And He was convinced that Isaiah 7,14 was mistranslated and should read something like “young woman” instead of “virgin”. While trying to convince the other elders, he had a vision. In the vision he was told to leave it as is and that he will live to see it happen. That is the explanation of Luke 2,26, that “It was revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not experience death until he had seen the Anointed of the Lord”
    On a totally unrelated note, if you have a minute, please read my blog post at “Dr. Gayed’s Blog” about what Abraham was thinking when he was about to sacrifice Isaac and what was lost in the translation. Let me know what you think. God bless.

  4. Avatar
    Eric  December 6, 2016

    It is funny to read this with your hindsight of how defensive you now find it and how you denied that so explicitly at the time. Self-awareness is a too-rare trait. Thanks for sharing your current thoughts about it.

  5. Avatar
    madmax2976  December 8, 2016

    Dr. Ehrman,

    You note that many of your views are shared by a wide number of biblical scholars around the country and even the world. Can you think of – and perhaps list – views on biblical scholarship that aren’t commonly agreed upon?

    For instance, as a possible start to the list:

    1. I don’t think Jesus was buried in a tomb or that Joseph of Arimathea lent out a tomb. (Assuming that most biblical scholars would disagree with you on this topic – I don’t know myself)

    2.

    • Bart
      Bart  December 9, 2016

      Yes, that would be one view that I hold that is not widely held. My sense is that *most* of my scholarly views are pretty standard fare which is why it’s rather odd that I get attacked as a bogey man, as if I had way out there views that I devised to destroy people’s faith). But virtually every position in biblical studies is disputed by someone or another (Was Mark the first Gospel? Did Q exist? Was John written after the Synoptics? Is Acts historically reliable? Did Paul remain a Jew? Did Paul write the Pastoral epistles? Did he write Philippians? I could go on for days…)

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