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Teaching the Bible as a Historical Book

Ever since I first put foot in a university classroom as a professor of religious studies, I have been firmly committed to the constitutional separation of church and state.  I have never seen it to be my mission either to convert someone to a new religious point of view or to deconvert them from their old one.  My goals have been to teach about the history and literature of the New Testament from a non-confessional point of view and to make students think hard about whatever their views might be.  The goal is not religious but humanistic — as is appropriate in a secular research university – namely, to help students learn how to think.

There are few subjects that are more perfectly suited to the university’s ultimate goal of training thinking human beings than religious studies, especially in the part of the world where I teach, the American South.   Nearly all of my students come into class with a life-long belief involving the material we cover in the syllabus.  Most of my students have an idea about what they think the Bible is, and more than that, a commitment to the Bible as a sacred text.   In the class I do not at all challenge the idea that the Bible is or should be sacred.  That would be a theological evaluation, and I’m not in the business of doing theology.  I do, however, approach the Bible in a way strikingly different from how students are accustomed to seeing it treated, by considering it as a historical and literary set of texts that can be studied without religious assumptions.  When the Bible is approached that way, different kinds of conclusions emerge than students have been raised on.  They find their old views challenged.  And they have to think about it to reconcile what they are learning with what they have always thought.

This is very different from other kinds of subjects taught in the curriculum.

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The Text of the New Testament: Are the Textual Traditions of Other Ancient Works Relevant? A Blast From the Past
Teaching Religion in a Secular Environment



  1. Avatar
    redshrek  April 28, 2017

    Dr. Ehrman, I understand you never set out to convert or deconvert anyone but in my case, your lectures were pivotal in planting the seeds that led to mu eventual deconversion. I am 34 years old and for the majority of my life, i was a fundamentalist Pentecostal Christian. I read the bible, memorized many parts of it (I can still recite Psalm 91 from memory) and viewed it as a literal collection of books breathed and inspired by YHWH. The first time I came in contact with information that challenged my view of the bible was a re-airing of a CSPAN BookTv with you from 2006. I watched this re-airing in 2011 and that planted the seeds which led to me going down the path of exploring the bible more and my eventual deconversion and agnostic atheism in 2016.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 30, 2017

      Wow! OK then! I hope you’re doing OK, or even better!

      • Avatar
        redshrek  May 2, 2017

        Yes sir! I am in the middle of your Great Courses, from Jesus to Constantine. It’s funny but since my leaving Christianity, I have developed a very strong interest in studying the bible. I take part in a weekly online bible study with other former Christians and the knowledge you and other scholars have shared have been very helpful.

  2. talmoore
    talmoore  April 28, 2017

    The people who know me know that I’m atheist. They also know that I read a lot of religious literature, both scriptures and books about religion. They often ask me about that seeming paradox. “If you’re an atheist, why do you read about religion?” Being the sardonic person that I am, I usually reply, “I’m an atheist *because* I read so much about religion.” Faith, by definition, is belief irrespective of knowledge. If a person insists on believing something regardless of how much they know about it, well, that’s the antithesis of education. But there’s another reason I’m fascinated by religion. I’m fascinated by human beings in general, by our cultures, our institutions, our behavior, and religion is one of the best windows into humanity there is. Ironically, reading about religion tells you more about human beings than it ever could about gods and goddesses, or the supernatural or spirits or the afterlife.

  3. Avatar
    john76  April 28, 2017

    This is probably wrong, but something in my head is telling me the title of this post shouldn’t be “Teaching the Bible as ‘a’ Historical Book,” but rather “Teaching the Bible as ‘an’ Historical Book.” I am too far removed from university to be confident on what the proper grammar is. lol

    • Bart
      Bart  April 30, 2017

      I know, I struggled with it myself when coming up with the title for my textbook. But it depends on whether you’re living in England (“an) or America (“a”). (There are lots of close analogies, btw: do you say “An hymnbook”, e.g.?)

  4. Avatar
    Tempo1936  April 28, 2017

    Did you write a blog that Paul included or referenced Jesus’ earthly ministry in his epistles? If not would you include that in your mail bag?

      • Avatar
        Tony  May 1, 2017

        I’ve earlier addressed all the points in that blog which allegedly support an historical Jesus within Paul’s letters .

        Are you sticking with your story?

        • Bart
          Bart  May 1, 2017

          I wasn’t really telling a story — just pointing out the places where Paul refers to the historical Jesus.

          • Avatar
            Tony  May 1, 2017

            That response was not unexpected. The best I hoped for was the fifth habit of Stephen Covey: “Seek First to Understand, Then to be Understood”.

            Paraphrasing from your post today – there is indeed a massive wall of denial.

          • Bart
            Bart  May 2, 2017

            Sorry, I’m not sure what you think I’m denying. Are you saying that Paul does *not* say these things about Jesus’ life?

  5. DestinationReign
    DestinationReign  April 29, 2017

    Good blog post on a great topic. THE most important Biblical topic there is, in fact. If we scrutinize the Bible and judge whether or not it was divinely authored based on historicity and literalness, we of course will conclude that it’s not divinely inspired. Here is the problem that Christians have: They attempt to rebut the skeptics on the skeptics’ own battleground – literality. This is why informed skeptical minds are rarely ever changed. However, the Bible does not “prove” its divine authorship on literality, but a higher metaphysical understanding of what has been happening over the last 2,000 years.

    A higher understanding of what the Bible is and what it’s saying will move the “battle” to a more even playing field. For instance – you often make the point that the Gospel of John paints a far different picture of the personhood of Christ than the three synoptics. But what if it is proposed that Scripture has been both divinely authored AND ASSEMBLED in such a manner that the three synoptics relate to the Church Age in which Christ has been absent or “hidden” from the world, while John represents Christ returning in power in His kingdom? (Remember in an earlier blog reply I made note of John 9:4-5 alluding to the dark age of Christianity that would occur after Christ left the world.) With this “Gospel-template,” we can now understand that the three Synoptics feature Christ stressing to keep His divinity hidden from the masses, while in John, He openly proclaims it. Each Gospel relates to different timeline increments from the time that Christ came 2,000 years ago. This is why John is so different – because it pertains to the coming of the Kingdom when Christ will be revealed in power and glory. Thoughts?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 30, 2017

      I don’t think John thinks any longer about a coming kingdom. For him, it is all about heaven above, not a kingdom yet to come on this earth.

  6. Avatar
    Eskil  April 29, 2017

    To what extent historians study the sincerity the new testament characters and/or writers? You seem to personally believe that at least Peter and Paul were sincerity believers, right? However, you have admitted that early christian generations forged some of Paul and Peter’s letters. Dale Martin has said that the five divergent narratives of Jesus resurrection in NT could be a school book example of suspects lying in interrogations. Acts has stories about early converts selling all their properties and giving all their monies to apostles i.e. “brought the money and put it at the apostles’ feet.” (Acts 4:34 – Acts 5:11) What if it all were just a scam to get gullible peoples monies originally.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 30, 2017

      I’d say there’s no way to know. But if you think someone form the past was just lying for their own purposes, I think you would have to bear the burden of proof.

    • talmoore
      talmoore  April 30, 2017

      The evidence of cult leaders throughout history has shown that if anyone in early Christian history was a liar and a scammer, that person would almost certainly have been Jesus himself — and by process of elimination, all of Jesus’ followers, from Peter to Paul, were probably true believers. Whether Jesus was actually a fraud is something I doubt we could ever known with any certainty, but it’s definitely a possibility. I give it a 50/50 chance.

      Incidentally, in the novel I’m writing about Jesus, I’m telling the story of Jesus from four points-of-view — John the Baptist, Peter, Judas and Jesus himself. In one POV, Jesus is sincere and totally guileless. In another POV, he’s ostensibly in earnest, but internally it’s clear he’s subconsciously deceiving himself as much as he’s deceiving others. In the third POV, it’s not entirely clear who Jesus is, what he really believes, or why he does anything. In the last POV, Jesus is a complete fraud. I’ll leave it to you to figure out which Jesus goes with which third party’s POV.

      • Avatar
        Wilusa  May 1, 2017

        That should make for a fascinating novel! Can’t wait to read it. I’m guessing the *first* party’s point of view – Jesus’s – is the one in which the reader will realize he’s “subconsciously deceiving himself.”

      • Avatar
        Wilusa  May 1, 2017

        And I can guess the others: John the Baptist has no particular opinion, Peter believes Jesus is completely sincere, and Judas believes he’s a fraud.

        I sometimes think Judas is the most interesting character of all – at least, to speculate about. I tend to think he became disillusioned with Jesus for what I would have agreed was good reason…he never regretted having turned him in to the authorities (he wouldn’t have seen it as a “betrayal”)…and he went on to have a long and reasonably happy life. If he even heard about the early Christians, he dismissed their beliefs as nonsense.

      • Avatar
        dragonfly  May 2, 2017

        Ok, I’ll play. JB would have known Jesus the least, so he gets POV 3. Peter is always portrayed as completely loyal so he gets #1. That just leaves two alternatives, either Jesus was a fraud but no-one else realised it, or Judas thought he was a fraud when he was just not very competent. Either way makes for an interesting story. From your first paragraph, I’m guessing Judas #2, Jesus #4. The question is, if Jesus was a fraud, what was he getting out of it? What’s the motive?

  7. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  April 29, 2017

    I look forward to your spilling the beans.

    I have now read ten of your trade books and two of your textbooks, viewed all of your youtube debate videos, completed all of your Great Courses, and read all of your blogs, every one of them. You have been extremely prolific and this historical approach has had a “huge” effect on me and the way I understand the world. Thanks so much.

    I think our only basic difference is that you have developed more tolerance for the Biblical God and the Christian view than I have been able to develop and I have really, really tried. Considering the evidence, the Christian view just doesn’t seem, to me, to be justified and, in many cases, does great harm. Lumping all that under “theological” and letting it go as that, seems to sort of imply that that Christian view is as good as any other view. It may, indeed, be so, but, in my opinion, that needs to be demonstrated more convincingly than has been done, at least for me, so far. Letting weird stuff off the hook because it is “theological” seems to miss the point of the historical search which I think is to find the truth the best we can. Truth is truth. Moreover, as you know, these “theological” views greatly affect our world and if they are way out in left field, then they need to be challenged. The “historical” has to form the base of the “theological” so, in my opinion, the “theological” and the “historical” cannot be separated from each other quite so easily. It would be like separating Siamese twins without knowing any anatomy.

    Thanks again.

  8. Avatar
    Tempo1936  April 29, 2017

    In other blogs you mentioned that Christianity was based on Peter’s vision of Jesus that included auditory features (he thought he saw and heard him).
    What specific scriptures refer to peters Vision?

    In acts 10:41, Peter says he ate and drank was Jesus after the resurrection. That seems to be more than a vision.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 30, 2017

      The Gospels and Paul mention Peter having seen Jesus after his death. He either really saw him or it was a hallucination. It is well documnented that hallucinations can involve people who speak and can be touched, etc.

  9. Avatar
    Gary  April 30, 2017

    Off topic question: I am curious of your opinion of the following statement by William Lane Craig in his book, “The Son Rises”, page 51:

    “Reading through the gospels, one notices that they seem to be made up of many somewhat disconnected, self-sufficient stories about Jesus. But the part about Jesus’ sufferings, crucifixion, death, and burial, is related in a smooth continuous narrative. That suggests that the narrative is all of one piece and all existed before the gospel writers sat down to write their gospels. The story of Jesus’ suffering and death was thus part of the source material they used in writing their gospels.

    …It is now universally acknowledged that the burial account was part of that story, which was used as source material by Mark.”

    What percentage of scholars believe this? I find it very hard to believe that WLC is accurate in saying it is “universally” acknowledged. How likely do scholars (in particular, yourself) believe that the author of Mark could have invented the entire Passion narrative?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 30, 2017

      Probably most scholars think this. But I don’t see why a smooth narrative suggests someone *prior* to Mark invented it. Why couldn’t Mark invent it if someone before him could? It it’s because the rest of the narrative seems disjointed, one could easily argue that this is because of the nature of the material, not because of his lack of narrative skill.

      • Avatar
        Gary  May 1, 2017

        My question was not clear.

        I agree with the first half of WLC’s statement: “…the part about Jesus’ sufferings, crucifixion, death, and burial, is related in a smooth continuous narrative. That suggests that the narrative is all of one piece… ”

        But I disagree with the rest of the statement: …”and all [the Passion narrative] existed before the gospel writers sat down to write their gospels. The story of Jesus’ suffering and death was thus part of the source material they used in writing their gospels.

        My question for you is: Do most scholars believe that there is good evidence that the Passion narrative, including the burial narrative, existed prior to the writing of the Gospels? That is what WLC is claiming when he says “It is now universally acknowledged that the burial account was part of that story, which was used as source material by Mark.” Unless I have missed something, I don’t know of any evidence of the existence of THE burial narrative (burial in Arimathea’s tomb) prior to the writing of the Gospel of Mark in circa 70 CE. Sure, Paul mentions that Jesus was buried in First Corinthians 15, but he never mentions THE burial narrative of the Gospels.

        I believe that WLC is once again exaggerating or even making up evidence for his position. As far as I am aware, there is no evidence of the existence of a Joseph of Arimathea Tomb narrative prior to the writing of the Gospel of Mark. Please correct me if I am wrong.

        • Avatar
          Gary  May 1, 2017

          Then finally, how probable do you personally believe it is that the author of Mark invented the entire Passion narrative loosely based on the true historical event of Jesus of Nazareth’s arrest, conviction, crucifixion, and probable burial in some fashion in circa 30-33 CE?

          The author of Mark did not write his fictional narrative to lie. He was simply writing a good Greco-Roman biography: “fleshing-out” a bare-bones historical event about which he had very few actual details. His first century readers would not have expected every statement in his story to be historically factual.

          What do you think?

          • Bart
            Bart  May 2, 2017

            My view is that Mark, or someone not long before him, came up with the narrative based on oral traditions that had been in circulation for several decades.

        • Bart
          Bart  May 2, 2017

          It’s not universally thought so, but it is widely thought. But “prior to Mark” simply means “prior to 70 CE.” It doesn’t mean, say, “31 CE.

          • Avatar
            Gary  May 2, 2017

            Do you believe that Paul was aware of the Joseph of Arimathea Tomb narrative when he wrote his epistles?

          • Bart
            Bart  May 3, 2017

            No, I don’t.

          • Avatar
            Gary  May 3, 2017

            You said, “My view is that Mark, or someone not long before him, came up with the [Passion] narrative based on oral traditions that had been in circulation for several decades.”

            Yet you don’t believe that Paul was aware of part of that Passion Narrative—the Joseph of Arimathea Tomb narrative. That doesn’t leave much time between the life of Paul and the writing of Mark. So what evidence is there that Mark or someone not long before him came up with the Passion narrative based on oral traditions that had been in circulation for several DECADES? Is there actual evidence or is that just speculation? Why couldn’t Mark have invented the entire Passion narrative himself based on a bare-bones historical event of Jesus’ arrest, conviction, and crucifixion?

          • Bart
            Bart  May 4, 2017

            It’s hard for us to get our minds around an ancient world where books were written in one city, and would not be known in other cities for years or decades. Even if there was a Passion narrative floating around that Mark heard of, there’s no reason to think Paul had ever seen it.

          • Avatar
            Gary  May 5, 2017

            I understand, but is there actual evidence that a Passion narrative was floating around before Mark wrote his Gospel or is it simply speculation?

          • Bart
            Bart  May 6, 2017

            Do you mean “hard” evidence, as in a manuscript or something? No, nothing. We have no evidence of any of Mark’s Gospel prior to Mark’s Gospel.

          • Avatar
            Gary  May 5, 2017

            I’m currently reading Raymond Brown’s “The Virginal Conception and the Bodily Resurrection of Jesus” (copyright 1973). On page 117, Brown says, “The majority of scholars answer affirmatively [that the Passion narrative once ended with the account of Jesus’ burial and that an independent story about the finding of the tomb was added later], and suggest that in Mark the two stories of burial and of empty tomb show signs of different origins. (footnote: the most complete study is that by L. Schenke…)

            To me this seems to lend support to the idea that Mark may have invented the Empty Tomb narrative and tacked it onto an earlier Passion Story. What do you think about Brown’s statement? Does his statement still reflect a “majority” view today in 2017?

          • Bart
            Bart  May 6, 2017

            Brown didn’t think that Mark himself invented the story of the burial or empty tomb, even if he combined the two stories. He was basing his account on traditions earlier in circulation.

  10. Avatar
    Robby  April 30, 2017

    Dr. Ehrman, I’m curious​ if you’ve read “The GOD Delusion” by Dawkins or “God is not Great” by Hitchens and if so, what were your thoughts? I’m debating whether I will read them or not.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 30, 2017

      Yes, they’re both very interesting indeed.

    • Avatar
      dragonfly  May 1, 2017

      I’ve read both. First, Dawkins: It really is just his personal views written down. There seems to me to be a great lack of empirical evidence to back up his ideas, for example the evolution of religion (there are other books that explain this by actual experts). His knowledge of Christianity is very basic.
      Hitches: he knows a lot more about the different religions than Dawkins. His real knowledge is in political history, unsurprisingly. He’s very much focussed on human rights, which he deserves credit for. However he tries to blame religion for all the political evils that have used religion as an excuse.
      They are both more anti-theist than atheist, and I found their negativity a bit much at times. Still they’re interesting reads. Just remember you’re reading opinions, not facts.

  11. Avatar
    Wilusa  April 30, 2017

    I’m curious: Are many of the students interested, or are they glad there’s a class session they can skip? (I’m sure I’d be *very* interested!)

    • Bart
      Bart  April 30, 2017

      They seem unusually interested — more than in classes where I”m actually trying to teach them something. Hmm….

  12. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  April 30, 2017

    So, after sleeping on it, here is the big problem:

    How can we know what we know theologically? The usual answer is because the Bible tells us so. If, however, studying the Bible historically, shows us that the Bible is filled with contradictions and historical discrepancies how can it be used to determine what we know theologically? Moreover, whose interpretation of the Bible do we use when there are different interpretations?

    My main point: We can not separate the theological from the historical into non-overlapping magisteria so cleanly

    • Bart
      Bart  April 30, 2017

      You might be interested in my friend Dale martin’s new book, Biblical Truths.

      • Avatar
        llamensdor  May 1, 2017

        Until recently, I would have believed that it would be impossible to create a new and universal religion in these United States, let alone the entire known world. Yet, it has been done; it is called “Environmentalism.” In this religion, we are all sinners, guilty of despoiling the planet (however it was created) and we have a new priesthood, “climate scientists,” who will lead us up out of our muck and misery to a new and glorious universe. Spellbinding!

  13. Josephsluna
    Josephsluna  May 1, 2017

    I just found out I graduate next fall! I want to thank you for your words of wisdom and inspiration.

    Knowledge is power ….
    Those with knowledge are powerful ….

    Joseph ( AJ )

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