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Studying the Bible as Theology and/or History

 

Here is an old question that I received that continues to be pressing — something I think and talk about all the time!

QUESTION:

Would you please explain more on the differences between Biblical history and theology? Is it difficult as an historian to keep these separate in your personal beliefs?

RESPONSE:

I deal with this question in each of my three textbooks for undergraduates, since, for them, it is a confusing issue.  How can you study the Bible as a historian without religious perspectives guiding your reading.   Here is how I explain the issue in the Excursus to the first chapter of my Bible Intro.

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EXCURSUS

Most of the people who are deeply interested in the Bible in modern American culture are committed Jews or Christians who have been taught that this is a book of sacred texts, Scripture, unlike other books.  For many of these – especially many Christian believers – the Bible is the inspired word of God.  In communities of faith that hold such views, the Bible is usually studied not from a historical perspective by situating it in its own historical context, or in order to learn about its discrepancies and inconsistencies, or in order to learn that it may have historical mistakes in it.  You yourself may find the historical approach to stand at odds with what you have been taught to believe.  If so, then it is for you in particular that I want to provide these brief additional reflections in this excursus.

Here is the question: how can a person who is committed to the Bible affirm that its authors may have a wide range of perspectives, that they sometimes disagree with one another, or that they sometimes have made flat-out mistakes?  I can address the question by…

To see how I address this issue you need either to buy the book or join the blog.  Joining is cheaper.  So why not!  And in this case, all the money goes to charity.  Help the needy!  Help yourself!  Join!!

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Mapping the Diversity of Earliest Christianity
How I Take Notes on What I Read for a Trade Book

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Comments

  1. Antonio40  September 24, 2018

    The historian provides degrees of probability. But what if the naturalistic explanation of something is implausible? I am not saying that visions of the risen Jesus and fraud thereafter are implausible, I am just asking what would be your position as a historian if something could not be explained as probable in naturalistic terms. A “we don’t know”?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 25, 2018

      Yes, sometimes it’s a matter of saying that one implausible thing is less implausible than another, or simply saying “We don’t know!”

    • talmoore
      talmoore  September 25, 2018

      Notice that no two people have the exact same idea of what it means for something to be “naturalistic”. That’s a strong indication that the distinction between “natural” and “supernatural” only exists in our imaginations. That is, since nature is all there is, any notions we may harbor about what is “beyond” nature are pure fantasy.

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  2. cmdenton47  September 24, 2018

    Very well said. You are an admirable human being.

  3. saavoss  September 24, 2018

    I just checked Amazon. You have several textbooks available. Which one would you suggest I start with. I do have an academic background (I’m not an 18 or 19 yrs old freshman). I have studied Philosophy and Religion at the graduate level. I’ve had several professors infuse the course material with there own personal beliefs & agendas. So now I study on my own, independent of any university. I’ve never studied with you. I wish I could travel to one of the finer Universities, but I just cannot afford to do so.
    Which of your textbooks would you suggest I begin with?
    Also, can you recommend an author, or a textbook, who approaches the study of the Jewish Tanach (Christian Old Testament) similarly to your style with the New Testament?
    Thank you.

    • Bart
      Bart  September 25, 2018

      The most thorough one on the NT is: The New Testament: A Historical Introductoin to the Early Christian writings. For something similar for the Hebre Bible, I’d suggest either John Collins, Introduction to the Hebrew Bible or Michael Coogan, The Old Testament.

    • NulliusInVerba
      NulliusInVerba  September 25, 2018

      I accidentally purchased the Second Edition. While it is nonetheless outstanding, you might want to ask the Professor what is the current Edition.

  4. epicurus
    epicurus  September 24, 2018

    I’ve come across the writings of evangelical seminary profs that say they teach Historical Theology. Is this in theory the same thing as what you explained in this post? I say in theory because if they teach at an evangelical seminary I don’t know how much separation they would be allowed to practice between history and theology.

    • Bart
      Bart  September 25, 2018

      Ah, no, it’s not the same. “Historical” theology is a discipline that describes how theology developed over time in different historical periods; it stands over against “Systematic” theology which is an attempt to do theology and establish theological principles and views.

  5. Sabina  September 24, 2018

    The study of History is critical to our understanding of how we got to where we are today (beyond, of course, the rote memorization of who fought which battle when, succession of kings, etc.). Then there is the privilege it could afford us of standing upon our ancestors shoulders and learning from their mistakes and misdeeds, rather than repeating them and having to reinvent the wheel. Reviewing the Bible through a strictly historical lens proves that humankind has not changed in at least the last 3 to 4000 years. The powerful tend to be the change makers, with the exception of a few unusually convincing civilians who introduce a new philosophy, especially if that philosophy helps its adherents live safer, healthier or more fulfilling lives.
    And yet, we either never seem to learn from our predecessors’ mistakes, or, just as every adolescent has to experiment and construct his/ her own bridge into adulthood, no civilization, nation, people, or faith will ever completely be able to simply toe the line and take someone else’s word for how to proceed, even if that word is allegedly god’s own.
    The only heated words I have had with my Evangelical coworker were over her expressed opinion that History should only be an academic elective, i.e., that students can read it if they are interested, because ” an Engineering major doesn’t need History”. I countered that *everyone* needs to know History, thank you, Betsy Devoss!! She feels the same about Science, as if that should surprise anyone.

  6. talmoore
    talmoore  September 24, 2018

    As a pretty ardent atheist, I have to confess that I don’t consider theology to be a legitimate academic discipline. I know many people — probably most people — would consider that unfair or maybe even close-minded, but if you’re trying to talk to me about theology, you might as well be talking about Santa Claus-ology.

    That being said, I do think it is worthwhile to study religious literature, not just Christian or Jewish literature, but also Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Chinese, etc. These documents are a wealth of information, not just for the historian, but also for the social scientist. They are an invaluable window into the cultures that produced them and even into the human psyche in general. I believe I have grown immensely as a social scientist by studying them.

    I’m reminded, Dr. Ehrman, of the anthropological epiphany I had while reading your book Orthodox Corruption of Scripture. Although I had read Misquoting Jesus many years earlier, your more academically rigorous examination in OCoS opened up to me the tribal nature of early Christianity. That is, like many mass movements in history, there is invariably a point where the movement grew beyond its bounds, causing it to schism into different groups, each with its own set of shibboleths. And from there, the clear parallels to the rhetorical propaganda wars we see in other schismatic movements (cf. Leninist Bolshevism vs Trotskyist Bolshevism, for example) becomes all the more apparent. That’s the kind of value that I, as a social scientist, get from studying religious texts.

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  7. doug  September 24, 2018

    I was once taught that belief/faith was more important than knowledge. As someone once said, “I believe Jonah was swallowed by a whale because the Bible says so. And if the Bible said the whale was swallowed by Jonah, I’d believe that, too!”. Unfortunately, it’s hard for reason to penetrate that mindset.

  8. Todd  September 25, 2018

    Excellent statement. Sometime I want to purchase your text book on the whole Bible. I may actually learn something about it, and I say that as a graduate of a reputable seminary where I actually learned very little. I can honestly say that reading your entries these past 10 years have taught me more than any other source. Thank you for what you do for us.

  9. Telling
    Telling  September 25, 2018

    There is a caveat that I think shouldn’t be ignored. Historians operate on presumption that this is a solid, fixed, world, with life evolving out of inanimate matter. But (generally Asian) religions presume our reality is made up of consciousness, that there is no solid, fixed, anything; it is illusion, the mind tricking itself.

    With the former presumption, Theology is a discipline, and the religions amount to “beliefs”.

    Conventional theology crumbles under the latter presumption. Theology now is stories and sayings for comprehending reality that is formed by the mind. History still exists just as it is, but what seem to be theological ideas now may be more probable historical facts than is presently believed. For example, man may have experienced what we call miracles in these other times because people in that era believed miracles happened, whereas today we don’t generally believe miracles happen, and the world faithfully reflects the conventional present-day belief. Similarly, Gospel of Thomas sayings that sound crazy to us become logical ways for conveying the deeper truths whereas Biblical theology falls apart (such as eternal life granted to those who believe in a particular story line).

    Historical analysis, thus, under examination of the root nature of reality, becomes suspect, historians applying their present-day subjective view of reality to other periods,without adequate examination.

    Is this something historians ever even slightly consider or wonder about, their foundation presumptions of the nature of reality perhaps being wrongly applied?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 26, 2018

      Not so much. They aren’t claiming necessarily to be establishing ultimate reality, but to be following a certain “grammar” to achieve certain results, just as is done by all the disciplines (geometry; calculus; astronomy; biology; etc. etc.)

      • Telling
        Telling  September 26, 2018

        But it’s becoming no longer that simple.

        Mathematics appears unaffected by the two differing root assumptions (consciousness arising from solid matter, or consciousness creating an illusion of solid matter).

        History, too, will be unaffected EXCEPT when the historical analysis is founded upon theological texts — or history books mistaken as theological.

        Astronomy IS affected, however, and quantum science is bringing discoveries that are puzzling scientists (like an observer affecting the outcome of what is observed). Biology too. Note Robert Lanza, an expert in biology and recognized expert who subscribes to the alternative root assumption — consciousness the foundation of everything.

        With progressive elements of the technologically advanced West now turning toward the alternate assumption and with large populations of Hindus and Buddhists and other Asian religious disciplines having believed and know the alternate assumption from before the beginnning of recorded history, I think consideration should be given to the alternate root assumption by all disciplines, particularly religion and history relying on the “religious” texts for accuracy.

        • Bart
          Bart  September 28, 2018

          That may be true, but mathematicians rarely spend much time worrying about whether their consciousness arises from solid matter.

          • Telling
            Telling  September 28, 2018

            Well, even for math, a metaphysical view of the theory of everything will not change any mathematical formulas but I hasten to suggest there’s a higher more abstract yet untapped formula deeper than our physical world. In fact, metaphysical books generally all say people like Einstein have that deeper spiritual connection and from there (heaven) is where the great discoveries emerge (a joint effort between man and the unseen). Einstein _was_ known for his afternoon napping.

            Nice chat; good that you interact with us lower folks.

    • Pattycake1974
      Pattycake1974  September 29, 2018

      If I’m understanding you correctly, you’re saying that placing a historical lens on the Bible is a misapplication to reaching the *truth* because it’s a theological book. I’ve thought about that many times, but if we want to gain knowledge, I believe it’s necessary.

      Mathematicians have been somewhat successful in creating consciousness through their work in recent years. (Anybody can Google this information.) I’ve thought for a long time that the universe contains some type of consciousness since we’re a product of it. Also, we can’t create what doesn’t already exist in the first place. So if we *believe* we can live forever, as in being raised from the dead, then there’s nothing stopping us from achieving that since our thoughts and imaginations create *new* things (ex. advanced technology) or realities all the time and all within the confines of the mathematical laws set in place by the universe aeons ago.

      Someone’s imagination told him we could transport things via animals—by ship on water—somebody invented the wheel—then using engines on the ground—then someone thought we could fly; or we could communicate by writing, by sending that writing through delivery via person, on a horse then through ground transportation, locally by phone, then flown worldwide, now wirelessly on a global level both visually and aurally, etc… I’m convinced that the only limitations we have are the ones we set on ourselves. If we *think* it’s possible to be raised from the dead, then it really is possible and can be achieved.

  10. john76  September 25, 2018

    As Derrida demonstrated, we always have to be careful about drawing conclusions about the sources for stories based on the content of those stories. For example, consider the Temple Cleansing story and the plethora of possible source-explanations for it:

    (1) Maybe the story is accurate and Jesus caused a disturbance at the temple.
    (2) On the other hand, maybe the episode never happened, because there would have been guards there to prevent such a disturbance. Maybe Mark was part of an anti-temple sect similar to the Qumran sect and so was presenting in the story the idea that just as it was no longer the season for figs (the withering of the fig tree story), so too was it no longer season for the temple (the temple tantrum being sandwiched between the fig story).
    (3) Maybe the story started out as a sermon Jesus liked to give about the corruption of the temple, and that sermon simply morphed over time into the temple cleansing episode that Mark inherited.
    (4) Maybe the temple cleansing episode started out as a dream someone had about Jesus, which morphed, over time, into the temple tantrum story that was passed down to Mark.
    (5) Maybe Mark was apologetically justifying after the fact that the Jews really didn’t need the temple, in the wake of its destruction by the Romans
    (6) And this could go on indefinitely …

    Anyway, Derrida’s point is that when we draw conclusions about sources that lie behind narratives we need to be very careful, because often times our analysis can just be wishful, lazy thinking.

    • Telling
      Telling  September 26, 2018

      And consider too that the moneychangers would have been in the gentile marketplace area of the temple courtyard and that they were providing a necessary temple service mandated by Old Testament requirements for those coming from a long distance, the exchanging of prohibited Roman currency for purchasing a sacrificial animal.

      Under such condition, only a lunatic would have caused such disturbance, of which historians generally agree led directly to his attrest and execution.

    • Pattycake1974
      Pattycake1974  September 29, 2018

      I don’t know who Derrida is, but I think it’s a bit judgmental to call people lazy, wishful thinkers.

  11. BG07041  September 27, 2018

    While Dr. Ehrman will not comment on whether the Bible is the inspired word of God or not, isn’t it obvious from his lectures claiming it was written and changed by mortal men that it can not be the infallible word of God?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 28, 2018

      I do comment on that. I’m an atheist, so I certainly don’t think the Bible is inspired by God.

      • Liam Foley
        Liam Foley  September 28, 2018

        Even if you were a believer Divine inspiration of the text isn’t something that can be proven via historical scholarship. Correct?

    • Pattycake1974
      Pattycake1974  September 29, 2018

      I have a FB friendish-type acquaintance who is a biblical scholar with expertise in coptology. Some of his friends are responsible for updating the NIV. He’s an evangelical but certainly no dummy. He believes the Bible to be inerrant. I made the mistake of saying the virgin birth never happened and let’s just say, I won’t make the same mistake twice! But my point is, I don’t consider him illogical or unreasonable. He’s a very intelligent man, and it’s not obvious that the Bible cannot be the infallible word of God.

      • Pattycake1974
        Pattycake1974  September 30, 2018

        I should probably add, in reference to your comment, that the Bible having errors is not an obvious thing to some, even to scholars.

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