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Was My Weird Background a Help or a Hindrance: Mailbag October 22, 2017

In this week’s readers’ mailbag I deal with a personal question about my background and whether it gave me and advantages or disadvantages in my rather unusual line of work as a secular scholar of the Bible.   QUESTION:  Just as a matter of empirical fact, do you think that your religious background gave you any (intellectual) advantages, or disadvantages, in your work over someone who lacked that background?   RESPONSE: Every now and then I look back on my life and think:  Wow, now that was weird.  Even though I’m a pretty normal American guy in lots of ways – at least normal as an American guy who is a professional scholar (OK, that’s already weird, but it’s weird in a socially normal way) (my normalcies: I have passions for football, basketball, working out, reading novels and nonfiction, traveling, the outdoors, hiking, family, kids, grandkids; I love martinis and cigars [both of which I enjoy much more rarely than I would like, since I’d like to enjoy them for many more years….]; I’m politically [...]

What I Came To Believe About the Bible

It is a little difficult for me to describe what I believed after I gave up on my view that the Bible was the inerrant revelation from God with no mistakes in it whatsoever.  In part that is because there was a long transition period, and over time my beliefs evolved as I studied more, talked with friends and colleagues more, encountered more ideas, thought more. I was in the perfect situation for this kind of study and reflection.  I was already a PhD student at Princeton Theological Seminary and I was literally surrounded by people who spent most of their days, every day, reading, studying, talking, and thinking about the Christian faith from both a personal and an academic perspective.  I spent every day for lunch with people doing research and thinking about the Christian faith.  Every day I read significant books and articles on everything having to do with ancient Christianity.  Every day I had conversations about religious topics – mainly about the academic study of the New Testament and early Christianity, but [...]

Why Have I Stopped Explaining How I Lost My Faith? Readers’ Mailbag June 4, 2017

I will be dealing with two questions in this weeks’ Readers’ Mailbag.  The first is about what happened to that thread I was supposed to be doing on why I lost my faith (!) and the other about whether Mark’s account of Jesus’ death contains an inner discrepancy (one verse flat out contradicting another).   QUESTION: I'm a bit confused. A few weeks ago you said you were going to write about what you tell your students on the last day of school about why you lost your faith, but it seems you may have gotten off track, unless I missed a post or two….  Anyway, I am sorry I seem to have missed the posts that were about what you say to your class each year about why you lost your faith. I hope you will repeat it sometime soon.   RESPONSE: Ha!  Right!  I can see how this could be confusing.  When I started this thread I did not know it was even going to *be* a thread.  I had planned to make [...]

Becoming a Non-Fundamentalist Christian

After realizing that the Bible does in fact contain mistakes, I became a non-fundamentalist Christian and remained one for many years.  It is not easy to describe exactly what I believed “at the time,” only because it was a good expanse of time and there was a kind of transition period in which I evolved into the kind of open-minded, reflective believer that I became and remained, again for some years. At the early stages I suppose you could describe me as a fairly liberal evangelical.  There are lots of Christians like that in the world, and most of my friends at Princeton Seminary were in that mold.   How does one describe that kind of Christian? Such Christians very much, and wholeheartedly, think that God speaks through the Bible.  He uses it to communicate to his people.  Not in order to give them science lessons (what really happened on the third day of creation?) but in order to instruct them about how they should live and be.  God wants his people to show love to [...]

Fundamentalism and the Truth of the Bible

I have recently received a number of inquiries about why realizing there may be mistakes in the Bible might lead someone to become an agnostic.  Here is one that came a few days ago:   QUESTION: I want to thank you for your extensive work in explaining … your journey from believing that the bible contained no errors to proving the bible is not inerrant and simply the work of human writers. What I would like to be explained is the necessary logic to go from believing that the bible is not inerrant or the "word of God" to believing there is no God.   RESPONSE My view of the matter may seem odd to a lot of people, but it is nonetheless held by most critical scholars of the Bible and trained theologians.  What is the “necessary logic to go from believing that the bible is not inerrant … to believing there is no God?  There is no necessary logic at all. I have never thought that ... To See The Rest of this [...]

How I First Realized There Are Mistakes in the Bible

I have told the story before of how I first came to realize there might be mistakes in the Bible.  Rather than paraphrasing it again, I’ll simply reproduce the account as I presented it the first time I went public with my faith journey, back in my 2005 book Misquoting Jesus.  Here is what I said there: ************************************************************** Upon arriving at Princeton Theological Seminary, I immediately signed up for first-year Hebrew and Greek exegesis (= interpretation) classes, and loaded my schedule as much as I could with such courses.  I found these classes to be a challenge, both academically and personally.  The academic challenge was completely welcome.  But the personal challenges that I faced were emotionally rather trying.  As I indicated, already at Wheaton I had begun to question some of the foundational aspects of my commitment to the Bible as the inerrant word of God.  That commitment came under serious assault in my detailed studies at Princeton.  I resisted any temptation to change my views, and found a number of friends who, like me, [...]

My Resistance to Change at Princeton Seminary

Several people have asked me to unpack what I meant in the last sentence of yesterday’s post because, well, it doesn’t make sense.  What I was trying to say was that I had a crisis of faith in Seminary – as many people do, as it turns out – because I thought I could prove my faith claims were true (an Enlightenment position: “truth” is objective and can be proved), but the more research I did, the more I found that the facts seemed to contradict my faith claims (as many scholars of the Enlightenment had long realized). Let me explain.  First I want to stress – in case anyone queries me on it (as people do) – that my faith ultimately, in my own head at least, was based on what I took to be a personal relationship with God through Christ.  How personal?  We talked all the time.   So, on one level, my faith was not simply a set of propositions that I thought could be demonstrated (God exists; Christ is the Son [...]

The Life Story I Tell My Students

As I’ve indicated, my last class of the semester in my Introduction to the New Testament course is optional.  In it I explain to anyone who wants to come what I really believe and why I believe it.  The way I do it is by telling my life story, from childhood till today.  That takes about twenty or twenty-five minutes, and then I answer any questions for the rest of the time.  The questions could go on for hours – students have a lot of them – and some of the questions are very personal.  But I try to answer them as directly and honestly as I can. The story I tell starts with me as a church-going Episcopalian as a child, committed to the church, saying the Creed, confessing my sins, believing in God and Christ, serving as an altar boy.  And then in high school, I had a religious transformation.  I started attending a Campus Life Youth for Christ meeting that involved a social event every week and ended with a spiritual lesson [...]

Pastor Goranson, the Son of God, and I: A Blast From the Past

  A former colleague of mine contacted me last week -- not a colleague from any of my teaching positions, but a colleague in ministry from forty years ago when I was the Youth Pastor at Trinity Covenant Church in Oak Lawn, Illinois.  I've been reminiscing about those days, and I remembered an event connected with that church that I talked about in my book How Jesus Became God, involving a moment when my doubts about the Christian faith were starting to take hold.  Here is a post that I made about it exactly four years ago today. ************************************************************** When I attended Moody Bible Institute in the mid 1970s, every student was required, every semester, to do some kind of Christian ministry work.   Like all of my fellow students I was completely untrained and unqualified to do the things I did, but I think Moody believed in on-the-job training.   And so every student had to have one semester where, for maybe 2-3 hours one afternoon a week, they would engage in “door-to-door evangelism.”  That involved being [...]

My Problem(s) With Fundamentalism: A Blast from the Past

What are fundamentalists, and why don't I like them?  Here is a post I published almost exactly four years ago now.  My views have not changed! ********************************************************************** QUESTION: You note that fundamentalism is dangerous and harmful. How do you define fundamentalism and why do you think it’s dangerous? RESPONSE: There are of course actual definitions of “fundamentalism” that you can find in scholarship on religion, but I sense that you’re asking more for a rough-and-ready description. Years ago I started defining fundamentalism as “No fun, too much damn, and not enough mental. When I was a fundamentalist myself (yet to be described) I understood it in a positive way. Originally, in Christian circles, it referred to believers who held on to the “fundamentals” of the faith, which for us included such things as the inspiration of Scripture, the full deity of Christ, the Trinity, the virgin birth, the physical resurrection, and, well, probably a collection of other doctrines. Fundamentalism, for us, was to be differentiated from liberalism, which had sacrificed these basic fundamental doctrines to [...]

Why Don’t People See Discrepancies in the Bible? Readers’ Mailbag October 15, 2016

QUESTION: I assume that Bart Ehrman today when he reads the books of the New Testament sees large discrepancies between them.  My question is about the precocious sixteen-year-old Ehrman, Did he too see this variousness (which opens up the possibility of inconsistency)? Or did it all as he read it cohere, seem of a piece, convey one doctrinally comprehensive and orthodox and uniform message? And if it did, how does today’s Ehrman think young Ehrman managed to overlook all those obvious discrepancies?   RESPONSE: The sixteen-year-old Bart Ehrman who revered the Bible was probably like almost every sixteen-year-old on the planet who reveres the Bible.  We were (and people are still now) taught that the Bible was the inspired Word of God.  We knew that it was God’s revelation to humans before we had ever read a word of it.  Even before I was an evangelical Christian I simply assumed it had been given by God. If that’s what a person simply assumes before coming to the Bible, then when she or he reads the [...]

Fundamentalist Mistakes

When, three days ago, I posted my comments about the discovery of a two-page manuscript fragment of the Qur’an that, according to new reports, can be dated (technically, the parchment on which the text is written can be dated) to the lifetime of the prophet Mohammed or to a decade or so later, I had no idea that the post would be such a big deal.   The Facebook version of the post has had nearly245,000 hits. and counting.   Who would-a thought? There are, as you might imagine, many many comments being made.   And it strikes me that many, many of these comments are simply wrong.   I won’t be taking them on one at a time.   I want simply to say something about a strain of comment that I’m getting (including in private email) from fundamentalists. There are various ways that one can define fundamentalism.  (I often say, in jest, that the easiest definition is that a fundamentalist is:  “no fun, too much damn, and not enough mental.”)   I don’t need to go into a lot [...]

A Better Kind of Fundamentalist

In today’s post I’d like to go back to that intriguing little article by Louis Markos in the journal First Things, which he entitled “Errant Ehrman.”   If you’ll recall from my post last week, Markos starts the article by indicating that he felt “great pity” for me because I was the wrong kind of fundamentalist back when I was a conservative Christian.   My problem, he indicates, is that I applied modern standards to decide whether the Bible was inerrant.  Here are his words: He [Ehrman] was taught, rightly, that there are no contradictions in the Bible, but he was trained, quite falsely, to interpret the non-contradictory nature of the Bible in modern, scientific, post-Enlightenment terms. That is to say, he was encouraged to test the truth of the Bible against a verification system that has only existed for some 250 years….. And so, as I pointed out last time, the right kind of true believer is obviously one who does not “test the truth of the Bible” by modern standards using modern criteria, but only [...]

2017-12-14T10:25:07-05:00November 10th, 2014|Bart's Critics, Hebrew Bible/Old Testament|

Why I’m To Be Pitied for Having Been the Wrong Kind of Fundamentalist

Several readers of this blog have pointed me to an article in the conservative journal First Things;  the article (a review of a book by the  evangelical scholar Craig Blomberg) was written by Louis Markos, an English professor at Houston Baptist University.  The title is called “Ehrman Errant.”   I must say, that did not sound like a promising beginning. I had never heard of Louis Markos before – had certainly never met him, talked with him about myself or my life, shared with him my views of important topics, spent time to see how he ticked and to let him see how I do.   I don’t know the man, and he doesn’t me.  And so it was with some considerable surprise that I read the beginning of his article. “I feel great pity for Bart Ehrman.” So, from someone I don’t know, that’s a bit of a shocker.   I can understand why a friend of mine might feel some (but not great?) pity for me at some points of my life – when I had [...]

2020-04-03T16:28:08-04:00November 1st, 2014|Bart's Critics, Bart’s Biography, Public Forum|

Getting the Facts of My Life Straight

I have to admit, I sometimes get a bit tired of being the whipping boy for fundamentalist and conservative evangelical  Christian apologists.   If they would deal with my views head on and actually get the facts of my life right, it would be one thing.  But when they publicly accuse me of holding, or having held, positions that I never did – when they are flat our wrong in what they say about me -- it gets under my skin. The first time I noticed this in a big way was when Craig Evans – a long time colleague and friend – indicated, in writing!, that the reason I had become an agnostic was that I came to realize that there were differences in our manuscripts of the New Testament.   Good grief.   I had known about differences in our manuscripts from the time I was sixteen years old!!  I had studied them and known all about them in all the years I was a fundamentalist.   These differences had nothing – Zero, Nada, Not a Thing [...]

2017-12-14T15:47:22-05:00October 6th, 2014|Bart’s Biography, Public Forum|

Fundamentalists and the Variants in our Manuscripts

In my previous post I began a discussion of why textual variants (that is, different wordings of the verses of the NT) found in the manuscripts might matter to someone other than a specialist who spends his or her life studying such things.    Most of the hundreds of thousands of variations are of very little importance for anything, as most people – even specialists – would admit.   Only a minority really matter.  And none of these seriously threatens any significant, traditional, Christian doctrine.   But I’ve argued that this should not be the criterion used to establish their importance.  Lots of things in life are important that have nothing to do with traditional Christian doctrines! I would say that the variations in the manuscripts of the New Testament should seem important to three groups of people.  If you’re not in one of these groups, then they probably are not all that important to you!   (1)  Fundamentalist and conservative evangelical Christians who believe that the Bible is an inerrant or infallible revelation from God, with no mistakes [...]

2017-12-14T23:03:23-05:00June 20th, 2014|New Testament Manuscripts, Public Forum|

Who Cares??? Do the Variants in the Manuscripts Matter for Anything?

Ever since I wrote Misquoting Jesus readers have asked – these are usually conservative Christians with a high view of Scripture, but not always – whether any of the differences in the manuscripts of the New Testament actually *matter* for anything. I have often pointed out that there are hundreds of thousands of differences among our surviving manuscripts.  We don’t know exactly how many because no one has been able to count them all.  Are there 200,000?  300,000?  400,000?   We don’t know.  But what we do know, as I’ve repeatedly said (as was first pointed out to me by no less an authority than my mentor, Bruce Metzger), there are more variant readings in the manuscripts of the New Testament than there are words in the New Testament. But do any of the variants actually *matter*?   This has become an issue with some of the readers of the blog over the past week or so as I have been devoting a thread to the question of whether it makes sense to talk about the “original” [...]

The Religion of a Sixteen-Year-Old

I just got home from spending a week in Lawrence Kansas, my home town.   As I’ve done now for years, I took my mom fishing in the Ozarks for a few days.  She’s 87, and on a walker, but still able to reel them in! I go back to Lawrence probably three or four times a year, and each time it is like going down memory lane.  I left there to go to Moody Bible Institute in 1973, when I was all of 17 years old; I still called it home for years, but never lived there full time, not even in the summers usually.  I was married and very much on my own only four years later.  So my memories of the place are entirely of childhood through high school.   I can’t help reflecting on this, that, and the other thing in my past as I drive around town, remembering doing this thing here, that thing there, and so on. This time, for some reason, there was an unusually high concentration of “religious” recollections, [...]

My Problem with Fundamentalism

QUESTION: You note that fundamentalism is dangerous and harmful. How do you define fundamentalism and why do you think it’s dangerous?   RESPONSE: There are of course actual definitions of “fundamentalism” that you can find in scholarship on religion, but I sense that you’re asking more for a rough-and-ready description. Years ago I started defining fundamentalism as “No fun, too much damn, and not enough mental. When I was a fundamentalist myself (yet to be described) I understood it in a positive way. Originally, in Christian circles, it referred to believers who held on to the “fundamentals” of the faith, which for us included such things as the inspiration of Scripture, the full deity of Christ, the Trinity, the virgin birth, the physical resurrection, and, well, probably a collection of other doctrines. Fundamentalism, for us, was to be differentiated from liberalism, which had sacrificed these basic fundamental doctrines to the gods of modernity. And we would have nothing of it.   FOR THE REST OF THIS POST, log in as a Member. Click here for [...]

2020-04-03T19:02:43-04:00January 15th, 2013|Reader’s Questions, Reflections and Ruminations|

An Agnostic Teaching the Bible

Question: I have recently wondered how you can truly enjoy (and endure) your line of work with your loss of faith. It would seem to me that the mental dissonance would lead to great frustration and personal anguish in studying and teaching about something which you know is not historically true and has led you away from your faith….not to mention all of the flack you must have to dodge from the average person on a daily basis, including your beginning students, knowing that you will never change the minds of your most rigid fundamentalist critics. How do you deal with it…with any enthusiasm? I left church work because of that….what’s you secret? Response: It’s a good question, but there’s an easy answer, I think. It would probably be a real problem for me if I were teaching in a seminary or divinity school, or even a Christian college; in that scenario I think I would be completely torn and agonized the whole time, training ministers or teaching young people the Bible and the history [...]

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