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Similarities and Differences: Which Matter the Most?

I have been thinking a lot about the categories of “similarities” and “differences” recently.  In fact, now that I look back, I’ve been thinking about these categories for about forty years.   It’s funny the things we think about.   But for a scholar of early Christianity, these categories matter a lot.

When I was a conservative evangelical Christian, reading, studying, and thinking about the Bible, I was completely focused on similarities.   This book, this passage, this teaching is very similar to that one.    I did focus on differences about lots of *other* things (other than the Bible).  That person is Jew and not a Christian, and therefore will have to face judgment and be condemned, unlike *me* a Christian.  Or that person is a Roman Catholic and so is not a real Christian and therefore…   Or that person does not have the right theology about salvation, or Christ, or predestination, or the Bible, and therefore….

So I knew and thought about differences a lot and knew that they were highly significant. Even eternally significant.  Anyone who didn’t have my religious views was condemned forever.  Poor souls.  Why don’t they just agree with me?

But when it came to my own beliefs, at least about the Bible, it was all about the similarities.  The Bible had *ONE* author, ultimately: God.  Sure, he used human authors to convey his word.  And they may have used their own writing abilities to do so – accounting for differences in writing style and vocabulary (and languages: Greek, Hebrew, and a wee bit of Aramaic).  But the ideas they conveyed were completely consistent with one another, supported one another, and could be used to explain one another.

This was a principle of biblical interpretation …

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Contradictions and Contradictions: Final Response to Matt Firth
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  1. Avatar
    rivercrowman  April 29, 2019

    Great post!

  2. Avatar
    The Agnostic Christian  April 29, 2019

    I’m still thinking about Apostolic Succession. I’m listening to Lost Christianities and you just mentioned it. Hope it goes into more detail.

    “From the historian’s perspective it is striking that all forms of early Christianity claimed authorization of their views by tracing their lineage back through the Apostles to Jesus.”
    Part Two, Heresies and Orthodoxies, p. 97.

  3. Robert
    Robert  April 29, 2019

    Bart: “Anyone who didn’t have my religious views was condemned forever.”

    Christian fundamentalism is just modern day gnosticism. It is the correct knowledge (γνωσις, gnosis) that saves us. The same could be said of any overemphasis of orthodoxy.

    When did Christianity lose its emphasis on orthopraxy? Such a shame.

  4. Avatar
    Nichrob  April 29, 2019

    Your comment, “It was not quite like a flashbulb going off in my head. It was more like a blinding light on the Road to Damascus.”, made me think about my own transformation moment, from fundamentalist / to “not being” a fundamentalist (many years ago). Talk about “similarity”…..! And on that one very specific point: “the moment of changing your mind”, I read an incredible book from Kathryn Schulz called: Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error. I highly recommend this book “solely” to let your members know that for me it was very helpful read and it may be helpful to others….. Can’t wait to read your new book….!!

  5. Avatar
    ksgm34  April 29, 2019

    I have two questions!

    1) How are you defining a “great” theologian? In terms of impact on the development of Christianity? Of original thought? Of ability to skilfully interpret the bible? Or something else?

    2) When did the bible first come to be read as literal history rather than symbolic truths about God? I’ve heard it argued that an ‘accomodationist’ approach to the Scriptures was taken throughout history, including by the Jews – is that correct?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 30, 2019

      1. Yes, yes, and yes! 2. I think it was read as literal history as soon as it was written.

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    fishician  April 29, 2019

    Jesus seemed to preach about the kingdom of God on earth, not in heaven (e.g., Matt. 6:10), and even in Revelation that same idea is present (e.g., 21:2, 21:10). So, when did the transition occur in which the church began to teach that people are going to heaven rather than living in God’s kingdom on earth? (Let alone that idea of us floating around on clouds with wings and a harp!)

    • Bart
      Bart  April 30, 2019

      Ah, that’s what my next book is about (hopefully out next year at this time), Heaven and Hell: A History of the Afterlife. Short story: when the earthly kingdom never arrived as expected, a shift of thinking occurred: it must be at death, not at the coming apocalpyse, that the kingdom arrives.

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    drumbeg  April 29, 2019

    Dr. Ehrman have you read C.G. Chesterton’s interpretation of Jesus in Mark, where he cried out “Father why have you forsaken me?”

    “When the world shook and the sun was wiped out of heaven, it was not at the crucifixion, but at the cry from the cross: the cry which confessed that God was forsaken of God. And now let the revolutionists choose a creed from all the creeds and god from all the gods of the world, carefully weighing all the gods of the world, carefully weighing all the gods of inevitable recurrence and of unalterable power. They will not find another god who has himself been in revolt. Nay (the matter grows too difficult for human speech), but let the atheists themselves choose a god. They will find only one divinity who ever uttered their isolation; only one religion in which God seemed himself for an instant to be an atheist.”-C.G. Chesterton

    Speaking of finding over arching similarities in terms of a theological view point, Chesterton’s view here is interesting, touching and beautifully written, yet it steps outside the narrative to achieve the view. Or at least that is what it seems to do? This question of over arching similarities and differences is very important when looking at the bible. I am so grateful to you for bringing this to my attention. It has changed dramatically my understanding of how I was raised to view religion and in affect my life’s purpose (*this is big stuff*). So many priests and parishioners around me interpreted the bible as a consistent, unambiguous message and simple message at that. What a major disservice they have done to the true richness that actually is the bible.

    Having said all this, a like Chesterton’s theology here as well as some other christian theologians. Not because I believe they are correct but because of the rich and empathetic attempt to connect our desire for God with our humanity.

    • Avatar
      drumbeg  April 29, 2019

      G.K. Chesterton…I need to start doing a better job of proof reading and typing. *doh*

    • Bart
      Bart  April 30, 2019

      Yes I agree: interesting, touching, and not what the narrative itself is actually saying.

  8. Avatar
    Brittonp  April 29, 2019

    My epiphany of differences began with a stick. In commissioning the twelve, did Jesus tell them to take a staff or not? I read apologist’s attempts to harmonize this discrepancy. Not satisfied with their attempts I imagined how this difference could be solved until realizing that with a vivid imagination and some mental gymnastics I could solve any problem. It was the beginning that changed my view of the bible and my life.

  9. Avatar
    doug  April 29, 2019

    Thank you for showing us how you thought about the Bible when you were a conservative Xian. I was once a conservative Xian (I’m a secular humanist now), and sometimes when I want to gain a better understanding of how other views might differ from mine, I put on my conservative Xian hat and look at things from the other side.

  10. fefferdan
    fefferdan  April 29, 2019

    Seems to me the fundamental question boils down do this: “Do I believe the Bible was essentially written by God and therefore represents His viewpoint, or do I believe it was written by humans seeking to convey what they thought to be God’s viewpoint?” If the former, I’m more likely to overlook differences or try to find a way to reconcile them. If the latter I’m more likely to accept contradictions and live with them. I’m lucky, in a sense, that I didn’t come from a “believing” background like Bart, but from an agnostic-atheistic one. So I didn’t have to abandon a belief that God wrote the bible before being able to approach it critically. At the same time I also came to see God peeking out at times from the biblical authors’ often tendential writings. Either way studying the Bible fascinates me. In the final analysis I think that any critical approach to biblical studies leaves the student wrestling, like Jacob, with God or God’s ghost, depending on whether God is alive to the person or not.

  11. Avatar
    Hngerhman  April 29, 2019

    Intellectual honesty – something in very short supply these days. Precious few at your level of the game, in any game, are willing to allow for their views to admit of change. Thank you for yours.

  12. Avatar
    SScottb149  April 29, 2019

    Dr Erhman,
    I am very greatful for this post and the very candid views you have so graciously told in the books that I have read from you so far. I was raised in an extreme fundamentalist church, and by my teens I had left for both theological and personal reasons. The love of my life in college was a lovely, smart, kind Jewish girl who died suddenly and tragically in a car accident on the weekend we were going to meet her family to tell them we were going to be married. My fundamentalist preacher at the time told me that God was both punishing me for loving a non-Christian and punishing her for not being a Christian. To say the least, I left the church. Later, I briefly joined the Episcopal church, and now consider myself a non-affiliated “none”, although my passion for truth, meaning, and learning remain.
    I guess my point to all of this, is that I find a somewhat kindred spirit in you Dr. Erhman, in both your biographical and theological past and your continued interest in historical Christianity and moral/ethical issues. Your thoughts on the differences and similarities in the gospels and early Christianity are greatly needed in this country, in my opinion, in a society that hardly gives their own religion more than a sentimental thought or two most of the time, but neglects the “real life” issues of the original communities and, moreover, the relevance that we can find in our own day.
    This blog, to me at least, is a great example of my latter point. While I love how the differences in early times can be ferreted out and emphasized to help us understand and grow intellectually together in trying to “get behind” what really happened… What better way to find meaning in the similarities of the ancients and ourselves through: feeding the hungry, helping the homeless, and simply trying to love one another? Thank you.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 30, 2019

      Thanks for sharing, especially your horrible life-changing experience. Impossible for an outsider to imagine.

      • Avatar
        SScottb149  May 10, 2019

        Dr. Erhman,
        I appreciate that you took the time and care to comment on my story. I am currently reading your book on God’s Problem, and have found your thoughts on suffering very soothing. I also appreciate how candid you have been in this book, like all of your books, where you too have shared parts of your story. Thank you.

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    AstaKask  April 30, 2019

    I tried to argue differences with a couple of JWs last night. It was… interesting. If nothing else succeeds, you can always fall back on “I trust God, and therefore this will be explained to me later.” I can’t work like that.

  14. Avatar
    Apocryphile  April 30, 2019

    I think my major breakthrough as a thinking human being came in my junior year of high school when we were assigned to read Huston Smith’s The Religions of Man (now re-titled The World’s Religions). Suddenly, Christianity was not the only way of thinking about God and the world! (though a rather hirsute ‘Jesus freak’ RA I had on my freshman college dorm hall tried his darndest to pull me away from my newly acquired eclecticism)

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    RonaldTaska  May 7, 2019

    This concept reminds me of your writing about how differences in the Gospels can tell us a lot about the different cultures in which these different Gospels developed. Good blog. As always your personal theological journeys are your best blogs.

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