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Responses to my Newsweek Article

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 in my late teens and early twenties when I too was a Bible believing, born-again, conservative evangelical who thought that Scripture was the inerrantly 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, 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 🙂 ), 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.


More Responses to My Newsweek Article
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  1. Avatar
    Inndesign  December 14, 2012

    I too in my youth had a “Pirates Eye” view regarding Christianity, at least half my reasoning was disabled due to tradition verses scholarship (facts). For years, my understanding was limited to what mainstream teachers taught and I simply accepted their well-articulated arguments without question. One cannot be an objective student of the scriptures and come away with the view that the autographa is inerrant. Where the hand of man moves, the details will always be plagued with inaccuracy. Paul aptly encourage his churches to be like the Bereans (Acts 17:11), to study and prove all things taught. Man authored religions seduce the whole man (including Islam) while the truth liberates. Most fundamentalist cannot face the stark reality that they could be subjugated to a false premise, but rather reject the possibilities and quickly cower behind the traditions of church. Never the less, I still find the truths delivered in the Canon of Christian Scripture superior as a guide for life, even though not inerrant grammatically, factually or technically.

  2. Avatar
    Scott F  December 14, 2012

    “anyone who thinks that the New Testament contains discrepancies is too smart for his or her own good”

    I actually DO believe that some people are too smart. In order to create elaborate conditions under which your pet theory is true, the smarter you are, the better. While I feel particularly safe in that regard and believe you to be largely free of taint (you are pretty smart after all!) there are others – *cough*Wright*cough* – whom I suspect fall prey to this affliction.

  3. Avatar
    Yentyl  December 14, 2012

    Bart, you can see by my screen name that my favorite thing to do in my life is study the Torah/Christian Torah alias OT and NT. I love your books. The first one I read, Misquoting Jesus, backed me into a wall. Okay. How do I get out of here Lord? I had prayed before I read it that it wouldn’t effect my faith in Him and in Yeshua as my saviour. I had to just back off and pray about it for a while. I did like the book. I knew it was the truth, but where did I go from here? I made up my mind, and in my heart I knew, that I truly believe that Yeshua IS the Son of God, at the same time He IS God, and I truly believe that he came to earth as a little baby, grew up, had a ministry of reconciliation, died on the cross, and rose again, the second Adam victorious. I knew in my heart and mind I truly and certainly do believe. So then what do I, a SS teacher for 29 years, a Hebrew language teacher, a Hebrew roots studier, some consider a scholar, do with your books? When I calmed down in my spirit and prayed (a lot), I knew everything you wrote was true. I had to balance that with what I believe. I have been at major peace with it all since then and have read many more of your books. At this point, I’m glad I have read them and know the truth. It’s not something I share with anyone except my husband. Many people aren’t mature enough in their faith to be able to handle this truth. I wouldn’t want to be responsible for them losing their faith. I just got Forgery and Counterforgery, and my first thought was, “How in the world could anyone write a book like this with maybe size 8 font in a lifetime! It’s huge!” Then I decided if you could write it, I could read it, so I decided systematically to read one chapter a day. I love it already. You write just like you’re sitting down in person and talking to us. That’s how people say I write. Mazel tov on this production. I appreciate so much your scholarship and ability to write books like these and to teach. I wish I had been able to go to university, but, alas, at 70 years of age it’s a little late, so I’ll be content with books. Thanks again.

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  4. Avatar
    amorfati  December 14, 2012

    Thanks for sharing this, Bart!

    I think it is hysterical—and in many ways quite sad—to see how defensive and insulting lay people become when faced with bona fide, critical scholarship of the NT. Apparently, all you need is a self-proclaimed “baptism of the Holy Spirit,” and then you can rest smugly in the *assurance* that the Paraclete is guiding you into “all truth.”

    Silly superstitions and myths aside, I seem to encounter the the blankest of stares and a total loss of words when I try to remind these masses of true believers that scholars like you, as well as the rest of the majority of other NT scholars, have spent your *entire* professional lives in this field. You do this day-in and day-out—for a living! And it ain’t like it’s easy!

    “Think about what you do for a living,” I’ll say. “Even in an non-academic pursuit, you are probably on the inside track with respect to the knowledge, issues, and opinions contained therein. How presumptuous would it be if someone who was not a professional in your field came to you and told you that they knew your subject better—more certainly— than you?”

    And this rhetorical strategy leaves aside the fact that, in the case of NT scholarship, we are dealing with *highly-trained*, *interconnected*, *internally-critiqued* scholars who lay their theses out for ALL scholars to test. It is clear here that one would be wise to heed the professional opinions of the matter, if not accept the worldviews held by these scholars. After all, even a well-respected, conservative scholar like Luke Timothy Johnson (Emory University) concedes to these points regarding the gospel discrepancies.

    Keep on fighting the good fight, Bart … to employ a deutero-Pauline quip in an ironic way! For all of the true searchers, their quest for truth will ultimately let the chips fall where they may. As for those smug detractors: ‘Illegitimi non carborundum’ … nothing speaks louder than arrogance, nor more certainly than ignorance.

  5. Avatar
    Jeff Hradkowsky  December 14, 2012

    Bart, I for one find your views soundly based. Way before I was turned on to your books, I too felt there wasn’t something, pardon the phrase, kosher, not only with the stories of the New Testament. but the Bible as a whole, and I suspect if I took the time to read the Quran, I would feel the same way about that too! Your book, “Misquoting Jesus”, which I highly recommend to anyone who wants a honest and well researched history into who the wrote the Bible and why, only confirmed the suspicions I had had for at least 20 years, and you confirmed them. For that I am eternally grateful. And I believe your findings could translate to other ancient religions as well, thus proving them not as perfect as their believers would like to believe. Keep up the good work!!

  6. Avatar
    wisemenwatch  December 14, 2012

    “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 🙂 ), 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.”

    This is the agnostic’s conundrum. Somewhere on this blog, a reader postulated that there is no difference between the agnostic and the atheist; that the agnostic is for all intents and purposes an atheist.

    But this is where I see the difference: Agnostics are humble enough to admit that they don’t have all the answers.

    Coming from a genuine born-again background, I asked myself, “which is the greater sin – to lie about the facts and continue to blindly believe, or to tell the truth – which the Bible commands us to do?” Which is the “higher calling” and what do we owe to God (if he actually exists)? Would God expect us to believe the unbelievable or lie about it, as a test of our worthiness for salvation?

    Fantacizing, I can see myself on the last day: “But Lord, I never denied You! I just called the evolved story into question, but not You personally!”

    The thing is, I desparately wanted to believe. I wanted to be the best Christian there ever was…but when I did that, I came to this conundrum. I didn’t believe something that my intellect (that You gave me) and my experiences (that You allowed) told me could not be so.

    But don’t think I didn’t think pretty hard on the subject before coming to that conclusion! Don’t think I didn’t search for You with all my heart, all my mind, and all my soul. And being God, You should already know that!

  7. Avatar
    Michael  December 14, 2012

    Thank you Dr. Ehrman for making your work public. I’m encouraged to see the directions scholarship has taken in the gospel accounts. I grew up in a fundamentalist church and I agree your well formed arguments are unfortunately fuel for the masses of hyper-conservative types who have little else better to do than attack solid scholarship in a forum like Newsweek. However, there are many recovering fundamentalists like myself who agree with and appreciate the grayness of Scriptural accounts. We value your voice in the public forum which presents a more balanced view of Scripture. Keep up the good work.

  8. Avatar
    Adam  December 14, 2012

    You patience with those who treat you badly or say bad or untrue things about you is commendable! Too many mean-spirited people. It’s probably your born-again background that allows you to be able to be patient. As you said many times before, you encourage people to think critically for themselves and work to pass on scholarship to the general public. You don’t hate Christians…

  9. Avatar
    tcc  December 14, 2012

    Yeah, the responses seem pretty embarassing. At least it’s not the 16th century, when folks like that would have burnt everybody who doubted the gospel birth accounts’ historicity at the stake.

    When I read comments like that, I like to imagine an alternate universe, where The Life Of Apollonius Of Tyana is more popular than the gospels, and people rant about how swans dancing around Apollonius’ virgin mother is “the best attested event in human history” and that they hope Zeus has mercy on our immortal souls for doubting it.

  10. Avatar
    SelfAwarePatterns  December 14, 2012

    I see it as a very positive development that you’re able to get this information into mainstream media. It’s important that people are exposed to it, even if many of them react strongly to it.

    “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.”

    Have to say that I love this passage. Very well said.

  11. Avatar
    DMiller5842  December 14, 2012

    You should have said the following in that article: “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.”

    It might have headed off some of the BS blow back you are getting now.

    MY FEEDBACK ON THE ARTICLE, THIS BLOG, ALL THE BOOKS, PROGRAMS, DEBATES, and COURSES —
    THANK YOU FROM THE BOTTOM OF MY HEART FOR THE HONESTY, SHARING THE KNIOWLEGE FROM YOUR PAINSTAKING EFFORTS AND LIFELONG EFFORT TO REALLY STUDY THE BIBLE. YOU ARE A BRAVE MAN, DR. EHRMAN.

  12. Avatar
    Walid_  December 14, 2012

    Doctor Ehrman
    Even though I agree with every single letter you wrote,
    I strongly believe that you need to look through a different angle.
    Although the scholarly concensus is on your side, how many of those scholars mention those facts?
    How many of those who do mention it have the ‘Ehrman charisma’?
    Dr Ehrman you have English language at your fingertips which combined with personal communication gifts, make you extremely convincing, I would take whatever you say as THE truth.
    Perhaps because you’re genuine, so the arguments come as genuine too.
    Your books are hoovering centuries of dust that made people’s logical analytical faculties immune to reason.
    I know for certain that the reflex of reading an ‘idea’ that you put makes me all the more certain,and content, but that also makes ‘them’ more wobbly, furious and ultimately more defensive!
    In short, if removing a slightly decayed tooth is extremely painful, then removing a fully corrupted belief is unbearable.
    I may well be accused of exaggerating but it’s my honest opinion.
    Regards,
    Walid

  13. Avatar
    Elisabeth Strout  December 14, 2012

    Fascinating to note that even Al Mohler’s response never addressed the issues and contradictions you pointed out in the texts, but sort of went round in circles repeating the necessity of believing the gospels are historical fact in order for ‘Christianity not to fall apart’. It’s disturbing how skilled evangelicals seems to be when it comes to red herrings. Another great article, thanks again for your work – here’s at least one non-incensed reply (:

  14. Avatar
    toddfrederick  December 14, 2012

    You wrote a good article which will fall on many deaf hostile ears I fear. I left church work many years ago for that very reason. Last year I thought it might be interesting to attend church again and picked what I thought was a nice “progressive, social action” Methodist Church….wrong. The first statement from the new young minister at the opening night of the first Bible study was, “There are absolutely no contradictions or controversies anywhere in the entire Bible.” When I chose to object with some samples, a “church lady” interrupted saying, “You don’t understand the truth of the Holy Bible because I have not yet received the Holy Spirit.” So much for my attempt to revive church-going !!!

  15. Avatar
    Brian Kellogg  December 15, 2012

    I for one would like to thank you for your work and scholarship. Your work and debates were instrumental in helping break my fear of questioning “inerrant scripture”.

    thank you,
    Brian

  16. Avatar
    toddfrederick  December 15, 2012

    I just read the comments on your Newsweek story. Observation: if getting into Heaven is based on “correct knowledge,” no one will be admitted !!!

    More seriously, what I read in the comments was primarily about 1) correct theology and 2) going to Heaven or Hell.

    What was missing? All of the teaching of Jesus regarding “love your neighbor.” That is… All of the social ethics. I am still convinced that the great majority of professing Christian are primarily concerned about the rewards and not the works of faith.

  17. Avatar
    hwl  December 15, 2012

    In future, why not include footnotes citing other scholarly books and articles (especially from clergy-scholars) that also share the points you are making? This would go a small way towards dispelling the myth you are expressing idiosyncratic views?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  December 15, 2012

      I’ve thought about it. But footnotes are generally for scholars. My book Jesus Interrupted made the point that virtually everything I said was what is taught in every quality biblical studies program at every college and university and top-level seminary in the country.

      • Avatar
        hwl  December 15, 2012

        It is difficult for people currently outside academia, or in academia but outside theology/religious studies/biblical departments to check for themselves what is taught. Either your readers have to take your word that this is universally taught in major centres of learning, or reject your word in the same way they reject everything else you say. By citing a litany of books and authors – outsiders can easily check on Wikipedia or department websites for their credentials – your readers check up the references themselves if they are really keen on pursuing the facts, or they have to accept they are putting themselves in opposition to the scholarly community.

  18. Avatar
    hwl  December 15, 2012

    From Newsweek article: “These are books that meant to declare religious truths, not historical facts.”
    Do you mean the gospels are not meant by the authors to be about historical facts? Sure the authors intended them to be such, as Luke 1 and concluding paragraph of John make clear, and the narrative style of all the gospels give the impression of presenting history in the form of ancient storytelling. For centuries until the Enlightenment, aside from the strand of allegorical interpretations, the Church have always read the gospels as straightforward history. Authorial intention is of course altogether different from whether the narratives are in fact historicaly accurate.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  December 15, 2012

      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. But we make it, and if we do, we have to ask what kind of books ancient books are. They are NOT books that try to be historical in our modern sense, since they didn’t have our post-Enlightenment sense of what history is or how it should be done.

      • Avatar
        hwl  December 15, 2012

        I have to confess I have come across this position in various quarters (that pre-Enlightenment thinkers did not distinguish theology and history), but I haven’t read an an adequate justification. Surely even ancient people understood logical reasoning (certainly the Greek philosophers did). Either Jesus was born in Bethlehem or he wasn’t (applying Aristotle’s principle of non-contradiction). If he wasn’t, then the claim that he was is historically false (i.e. it didn’t happen) – irrespective of whether one recognises a distinction between history and theology. Such a claim in the context of a rich inspiring story – the nativities stories are clearly such – can still have theological value. Conservative Christians today reject suggestions that the gospels have historical inaccuracies because in their worldview, historical inaccuracies undermine theological truth. One can debate whether this is in fact so. In pre-Enlightenment era, Christian thinkers did not address this debate because there was no compelling reason to suspect there were historical inaccuracies.

        Ancient histories or biographies were not written in the style and purpose of modern histories. But even ancient people understood the distinction between saying something happened, and saying it didn’t happen. Surely ancient readers understood the distinction between a parable and a historical narrative – when they read Luke narrating Jesus being born in Bethlehem during reign of Emperor Augustus, they would have understood it as expressing something that happened in a real town to a real person under reign of a real emperor. When they read Luke narrating a prodigal son, they switch to a different mode trying to match what each figure in the story represented and were not concerned with whether the prodigal son did exist, from which town he was from, under which emperor the family lived. Today the word “parable” denotes a story that is intentionally fictional (or at least, the historicity of the story is of no relevance to the purpose of the story). From what we can tell, how did ancient people understand the word?

        The situation as I understand it, is that the Church before the Enlightenment – in fact sections of the church through the Enlightenment up till present day – did not see distinction between history and theology, because they assumed things happened as they were described (leaving aside the allegorical interpretation). Hence historical truth cohered with theological truth.

        Even during the patristic period, certain discrepancies in the gospels were already spotted (e.g. when Jesus caused a commotion in the Temple), and attempts were made to harmonise them. If ancient people were not concerned about historical accuracy, they would not have seen the need to harmonise discrepancies.

  19. Avatar
    hwl  December 15, 2012

    Numerically, are biblical scholars from conservative seminaries of comparable size to those in mainline seminaries plus research universities?
    Do biblical scholars from conservative seminaries generally do not publish in scholarly biblical journals and academic presses, hence they do not engage with critical scholarship in these publications – that is, they live in a parallel universe in term of publications? If they do publish and engage with critical scholarship, I wonder how can they honestly churn out ordinands and pastors who are either ignorant or hostile towards findings of critical scholarship. These pastors in turn do a real disservice to their congregation by keeping them in the dark.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  December 15, 2012

      I don’t know what the comparative numbers are. There are a lot of evangelical and fundamentalist seminaries and colleges out there! Some important evangelical scholars do indeed publish in critical journals, but they either deal with non-threatening aspects of the discipline or come to “acceptable” (to their constituencies) conclusions.

  20. Avatar
    Xmen  December 15, 2012

    I believe it is very difficult for people to change gears once they have traveled so far in one direction with a focus on the end point(slavation).

    Even when faced with overwhelming evidence contrary to their belief, they still stay the course based upon what is comfortable in their life.

    It kind of parellels the movie the Matrix……. do you take the blue pill and go back to dreamland or do you take the red pill and see just how deep the rabbit hole goes?

    I grew up as a Christian in my early youth and then went the way of non-belief in the Biblical account of God after college and led this life of…… lets just say alternate belief in creation and now I have come back to belief in God as the one and true creator of mankind.

    I converted to Islam(can’t wait to hear the reaction) because it made so much sense for me personally.

    Not much has changed about me other than the content of my heart. I did not change my name or grow a beard or change the way I talk……. it was just what came from within that resonates outward now.

    I know there is a God, but I do know that it is not the God of the NT.

    Problem with Christianity( and Islam as well), so many profess to follow their faith, but I see so many Christians or Muslims in title, but not in their hearts.

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