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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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Comments

  1. gmatthews
    gmatthews  December 15, 2012

    I wish I had your patience with people, I really do!

    I don’t think that giving a list of universities where the truth can be found is the best solution for under educated evangelicals. It’s been my experience that analogy is the best weapon for these kinds of people, otherwise you start sounding elitist with them and they completely shut down on you.

    I notice you include NC State, my alma mater, in your list of schools. Maybe the classes are new (post 1991), but I don’t recall any theological courses from my time there.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  December 15, 2012

      Yes, NC State has a very good department of Religious Studies, and has had for a long time. But it’s small, and since NCS is not a liberal arts college, it does not have a huge profile there. But the faculty are top-rate.

  2. Avatar
    andrejs.vanags  December 15, 2012

    “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.”

    … and would really like to thank you for that! Your commitment is a source of inspiration for me.

  3. Avatar
    Christian  December 15, 2012

    When have discrepancies been acknowledged in print for the first time? Is it possible that nobody noticed before? For example, in support of the forgery of some letters of Paul, you mention that the Greek style and vocabulary are sometimes extremely different. You also write that the wide majority of the population of the Roman empire was illiterate, but surely some educated readers of the New Testament in antiquity must have noticed something odd at times, no?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  December 15, 2012

      Yes, there were scholars in the ancient church who recognized such things. One of the most fascinating was Origen (third century) who maintained that the discrepancies of Scripture (which he assiduously uncovered) indicated places that the Holy Spirit meant to be interpreted in a figurative sense, since the literal sense did not work.

  4. Avatar
    z8000783  December 15, 2012

    “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.”

    Thanks Bart, interesting as ever and I have a question.

    I speak to a number of Christians on the internet who maintain that ALL/MOST Biblical scholars accept the ‘facts’ of the Bible especially the resurrection. Although you mention this in the context of discrepancies here, what are the views generally with regard to for example, the empty tomb, the ascension and other miracles?

    I guess that the views of Christian biblical scholars and historians are easily deduced but what proportion of the people studying these things seriously, do they account for. I suppose that if the majority of scholars in this field are Christians, then my debating colleagues are correct.

    Are there any sites/links you know that address this question with a few of the number involved?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  December 15, 2012

      Yes the majority of NT scholars are Christians, so the majority does believe in the resurrection — in some sense. Many of the more critical scholars do not press hard on the quesiton of whether it was an actual resuscitation of the body….

      • Avatar
        Hedgey78  January 14, 2013

        Dr. Ehrman,
        Have you read “The Resurrection of the Son of God” by Tom Wright? I would be interested in your response to it or pointing me toward any good critical analysis you know of toward this work.

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  January 15, 2013

          Yes, I have. I think it is way too apologetic in its intentions and conclusions. To balance it a bit, you might consider the essays in Gavin D’Costa Resurrection Reconsidered and/or in Paul Copan and Ronald K. Tacelli, eds, Jesus’ Resurrection: Fact or Figment .

      • Avatar
        Hedgey78  January 15, 2013

        Dr. Ehrman,
        Assuming your comment above indicates you do not believe that Jesus rose from death I am curious if this is a reason based on your understanding of the textual tradition and some major variants around the resurrection narratives and the other references to it in the NT or if it is based on some reasoning not found in your field of expertise. Thanks.

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  January 15, 2013

          That’s a very interesting way to put the question. Are you suggesting that I have just one area of expertise and that it is the variants in the textual tradition of the NT? Why would you think that this in particular is my one area of expertise? (I know that evangelical critics of mine — and atheist critics of mine — sometimes say this, but I’ve never understood why. My PhD training and most of my publications are in fact in different areas than that)

          But to answer your question, one main reason I don’t think Jesus was raised from the dead is that I believe there is no life after death of any kind for anyone, including Jesus. Once you’re dead, that’s the end of the story. This belief is not based on any of my various areas of expertise. But even before I came to this belief I had come to think Jesus was not raised from the dead. Although I certainly think that some of his followers were convinced he had!

          • Avatar
            Hedgey78  January 17, 2013

            Dr. Ehrman,
            Thanks for taking time to respond to me. I was not trying to assert that you only have 1 area of expertise (textual criticism). However, I was curious if you came to doubt the resurrection based on that field of study or for another reason- apologies for my poor wording. You did answer my question however in your comments when you stated your belief about dead people not being able to rise from death. I too have noticed that dead people tend to stay dead and there is nothing that I have ever personally observed that would lead me to conclude the opposite.

            However, this common argument based on observation might run into a problem if we were confronted with evidence (in the form of testimony and circumstances) that in fact someone had been raised from the dead. If this were the case the appeal to “dead people don’t rise” would beg the question. Assuming you believe that Peter, John and some of the other disciples really did exist and really did believe that Jesus rose from the dead what would you have expected them to have said when they met first century skeptics who like us know that it is not natural for dead people to rise. If they got into a debate and the skeptic said, “come on now we all just know dead people don’t rise” would that be a good argument? I suppose we could say that the claim is so against everything we know that no amount of evidence could compel us to believe but at this point we would really just be asserting our bias and not actually forming a rational argument against resurrection.

            To boil it all down I guess my question for you is how good of an argument is the “dead people don’t rise because no one ever has” when dealing with an actual claim that indeed someone has risen from death. How does one avoid begging the question in this case? Does it come down to the quality of the evidence or should one who advocates that view be content to beg the question?

            Just to lay my cards out there (if it is not obvious already) I am a Christian and I do believe Jesus rose from death but I understand the difficulty in advocating this position particularly in a scholarly setting.

          • Bart Ehrman
            Bart Ehrman  January 18, 2013

            Yes, I could tell you were a Christian who believed in the resurrection by the way you asked your question.

            I may devote some posts to this, as it’s obviously a major issue. I’ll be dealing with it more in my next book on How Jesus Became God. For now let me just answer your question directly. Most of my graduate training at both the Masters and the PhD level was in exegesis. My secondary field was history of the early Christian tradition. Almost all of my research and teaching (both undergraduates and graduates) over hte past 20 years has been historical. So exegesis and early Christian history are my two main areas of expertise. And based on both fields, my view is that there is not good evidence that Jesus was raised from the dead.

            I might add, that if you’re seriously interested in evidence, then I wonder what you make of the even greater testimony to the appearances of the Virgin Mary in the modern age. Or, for example, of the evidence that other figures such as Romulus and Apollonius were taken into heaven. Does evidence really matter? It’s a genuine question! My experience is that most people who are convinced that there is *evidence* that Jesus was raised are not interested in looking at evidence for miracles connected with people they do *not* already believe in.

  5. Avatar
    M.L.  December 17, 2012

    There is a very strident, conservative evangelical woman who does a religious themed radio show named Janet Mefferd. She has often had as a guest on her show a man (James White, a hard core conservative Calvinist) with a ‘doctorate’ from an unaccredited institution for the sole purpose of claiming Ehrman is all wet. She had him on just lastweek to denounce his Newsweek article.

    She tells the listener that “James White had denated Bart Ehrman” in a context which suggests White mopped the floor with him. Well, anyone who has seen or heard their debate can attest to the fact that Ehrman exposed White as an inept ‘scholar’. But it’s instructive for the following reason: it lends credence to the admonition of people like Richard Dawkins and the late Stephan Jay Gould that respectible scholars such as Ehrman perhaps ought not debate people with dubious academic credentials (such as ‘Dr.’ James White), creationists (which White happens to be as well, though this was not the subject of his debate with Ehrman), or people making unsound arguments in general because – as Dawkins puts it – it does wonders for the resume of the crank but nothing for the resume of the legitimate scholar.

    James White mentions his having debated Ehrman regularly and despite his expressed contempt for Ehrman’s views, clearly takes great pride in the fact that Ehrman considered him legitimate emough to debate. Moreover, people like the aforementioned Mefferd cite the fact that Ehrman debated White to lend credibility to White (despite the fact that White’s debate with Ehrman went disastrously bad for White – a view reluctantly conceded even by many of White’s online fanboys). Ehrman on the other hand is not in the habit of name dropping James White.

    The cognitive dissonance here is striking: Accoridng to White, Ehrman doesn’t know his ass from his elbow when it comes to the Bible, yet he regularly cites his having debated Bart Ehrman as his calling card to establish his alleged scholarly bonafides.

    So, yeah, maybe Dawkins has a point after all…

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  December 17, 2012

      Yeah, I constantly wonder about this. In my self defense, I had never *heard* of James White before I agreed to debate him. He’s a big person in his own small little world, but unknown among scholars of the Bible, which is the world of people I live with….

  6. Avatar
    laz  December 17, 2012

    nice to see so many comments on the issue in this blog. So many of us with so many of the same stories, yet what amazes me is how many are different to each other in some ways. To me the Bible not being perfect word of God is it…. Everything else is in vain after that, pure and simple. I suffered greatly as a Christian, and wouldn’t want that horror on anyone, so I am appreciative for all the books you write and anything else I can gleam from the internet, debates Etc. This information is very important, and I have shared it with those around me, with generally acceptance, and an improvement of their lives as well as mine, which i am grateful. Can’t wait for the next book, a topic i’m most interested in. Though raising three kids now, as an agnostic is an interesting adventure. Just earlier today my 6 year old asked me who the first person was, by the time I tried to explain dna, coming out of Africa, we don’t really know,( he seeemed to lose interest after that) I envy my christian friends, Ohhh that’s easy Adam and Eve. but that’s another topic….

  7. Avatar
    Hedgey78  January 14, 2013

    Dr. Ehrman,
    I am a 34 year old Christian who received a BA in Religion from a small Christian College near Seattle. I listened to your debate with Dan Wallace and I am familiar with your interactions with James White. I am well aware that there is a long list of variances in the textual tradition of the Bible. I think you have rightly highlighted many instances of these and some of the implications. However, I think that as has been pointed out many times it is important to keep in mind that what many more “conservative” scholars, apologists and average Joes like me disagree with are the interpretations you give to those facts. All sides who have read about textual criticism know that variances exist- no one who has ever read Metzger or FF Bruce would question this. What we do question is what you do with those facts. As Dr. Cornelius Van Til rightly pointed out no facts are brute facts all are interpreted.

  8. Avatar
    Steve Jones  January 22, 2013

    Dr. Ehrman,

    Having read most of your books and some of your courses on video, I find your journeys through faith and knowledge to be quite interesting. One can see that the concepts of our faith at times tears at the core of our inner being, and rightly so. Any thinking, sentient person with a Judeo-Christian background must at times questions and re-evaluate that faith as they learn new things and explore concepts.

    I am somewhat saddened by those who take all that is written in the Bible (or any religious document) as history. History is basically the study or determination of what really (or most likely) happened. While any study by man is in and of it self imprecise, the fact remains that religious documents are just that- religious, not historical. Whomever wrote Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were not writing history. Paul to a greater degree may have (at least the letters he himself wrote), but, like the Gospel writers, it was Paul’s main intent to convince people about Jesus, not to document history.

    I know you have struggled with God allowing evil to exist , and that idea has also brought me to the brink on occasion; what brings me back is a blend of science and spirituality. As we explore an ever-expanding universe I marvel at that concept that we are hurtling faster and faster into nothingness. As we evolve as humans and other forms of life I marvel that a God has created such a process and am glad it was not started via some “magic tricks” done as the Bible claims out of a somewhat bored God’s existence.

    I grew up Roman Catholic, sampled most of the traditional Protestant denominations in my college and early post-college days and settled on the Lutheran Church over 30 years ago. I find the concepts of Martin Luther (well, maybe not some of his later ones…) and the simplification of the orthodox catholic concepts to be the least limiting to my psyche. That is not to say they are anywhere near perfect; organized religion is a human concept of which God played little to no part in directly instituting. But it gives us a basis of beliefs, a community to be part of and a means to love and help others as Christ commanded. If every religion and denomination acted that way, the world would be better off.

  9. Avatar
    Jared Scharber  January 26, 2013

    Bart D. Ehrman,
    I read this article and it seems that the whole construction was very crafty. You led people to inquire that you believe in God and the Son of God. When, I’ve come to discover, you do not. I just have one question for you that I would ask myself if I was in your situation and it is this: If you do not believe in God or Jesus Christ, then why do you pour your life out trying to disprove Him? I do not believe in the Easter Bunny so I have simply moved on with my life. The facts are obvious so there is no point dwelling in something that I know is not true. If you honestly believed that there is no God and there is no Jesus and the NT is mostly fabricated then you would just accept it and move on to something worth devoting your life to. But you haven’t found that something so you keep trying to disprove God. I hope that you consider what I have said and do not simply dismiss me because you are a “scholar” and “know more than me” and are older. I only hope that you try to read this unbiased and earnestly.

    Jared Scharber
    16 year old junior in High School

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  January 27, 2013

      Jared,

      Thanks for your question. I agree — it would be very strange to try to spend one’s life “disproving God.” But that’s not what I try to do in any of my writings. When you have some free time from your own school work, you may want to try reading one of my books. Misquoting Jesus would be a good one to start with. All best,

      • Avatar
        Matusala  February 1, 2013

        I was stunned by this 16 years old remark. Jared is right. Why you spend all your life trying to ruin people’s faith with your ‘scholarly’ attack? I know in today’s atmospher, debunking christianity is a money generating tactic like the Militant Atheist Christopher Hitchens and Dawknis did. If you are truthful and why don’t you also direct your readers to consider other New Testamant Scholars like John Warwick Montgoomey and who trashed your argument like philospher William Lane Craig and James White. Don’t just cling on the mountain of scholoarship just by youself. God will judge you in his own time! Hitchens didnt save his soul!

        in his grip
        Mat

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  February 1, 2013

          You don’t seem to be a 16 year old, so unlike my answer to him, I can be more direct with you. If you think that this is my agenda, you clearly haven’t read my books, and maybe you should! It really is not right to attack people without knowing what they actually say. (and John Warwick Montgomery is NOT a New Testament scholar)

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