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Thanksgiving 2019

Some Thanksgiving ruminations, from where I am here and now.

I love holidays.  Not everyone does.  When I was younger that was always a mystery to me – what’s not to like?  But as I get older (and older and older), I get it.  Or at least part of it.  So many people hate the holidays and the suffering they bring.  Bitter and wrenching loneliness when all those around them are enjoying good times with family and friends and they … are not.  Or awful memories of holidays past – ugly family blow-ups or ill-timed tragedies.

Some of us are among the lucky ones: these are not problems.  But that itself is a problem.  Why should we have such a self-congratulatory happy, restful, fulfilling time when others….?   Also, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized just how fraught just about all our holidays actually are, how, often invisibly, they are so closely connected not with things to celebrate but with real human trauma and tragedy.

The Fourth of July.  The fireworks are supposed to remind us of our victories in war: bombs, killing, maiming, wounding.  My personal view is that we would be flipping crazy not to be deeply and eternally grateful for the freedoms we have in this country won in hard-fought wars.  But it does mean we killed more of them than they killed of us, or at least beat them into submission.  So it’s not an uncomplicated good.

Christmas.  I’ve always flat-out loved it, except the rank materialism which I completely and utterly detest; though I understand, it helps keep the economy afloat which means more people work, and have money, and can eat and live and enjoy life,  so that’s good.  But really.  There should be a better way than celebrate the Christmas message through raw capitalist greed.  Anyway…. I”ve always loved it and what it stands for, even though I’m not a Christian.  But it’s also true that the message of love, hope, and salvation the season is meant to bring also has the flip side.  Nowhere is that seen more clearly than in the Biblical story itself:  the massacre of innocent children in Bethlehem and the unimaginable agony that created.  It’s great that Joseph, Mary, and Jesus got away – but what about the others?  Guiltless infants and destroyed lives of their parents?  (You shouldn’t say it’s not God’s fault but Herod’s; God planned the whole thing and worked other miracles throughout the story.  Why not save innocent lives at the same time?)

Thanksgiving.  Here we are, Thanksgiving.   My very favorite holiday.  For me it’s the least problematic of them all.   We are thankful for the good things we have.  No religious connotations or commitments necessary.  No national boundaries involved.  No politics.  I love the whole thing.  Family, friends, football.   Turkey.   Masses to eat.  And drink.  And conversation and love to go around.  A time to relax and enjoy.  I love it.

But I realize how problematic it is.  It’s easy for me.  I have a great life.  Not everyone does.

On the other hand, I too have had some very bad times in my life.  When I had no money.  No job prospects.  Death in the family.  Relationships torn apart.  Loneliness.  Wrenching anxiety about my own future and the future of my children.  Health concerns.  And on and on.  I have never ever suffered in extremis.  I have never starved.  I have never been maimed.  I have never yet had an incurable disease.  But like everyone else on the planet, I have had some very hard times.

And yet I’ve always been thankful.  I think some of us are just made that way.  It’s not a virtue.  It’s a gift given to us.  Not, in my opinion, by a divine being who loves us. If we said *that* we’d have to admit that he had given it to us, the fortunate ones, and told all the others: tough luck!  That makes zero sense to me.   We have been given our good lives largely by a freak chance combination of genetics, upbringing, and inherited social worlds.   It is lucky us.  And we would indeed be crazy not to be thankful for it.

The problem with the concept of “thankfulness,” though, is that it does suggest there is someone responsible that we are to thank.   Of course, there are indeed lots and lots of people I myself am thankful to.  My loving parents, one of whom is still with us.  My amazing wife.  My amazing two kids.  My other family members.  My teachers.  My friends.  And on and on.

On the other hand, a lot of things I’m thankful for I have no person to thank.  So when I’m “thankful”l for the circumstances I was born into in the mid 50s in America, for excellent health, for a positive disposition, for talents I inherited, for good intelligence — Whom do I thank?

Just recently I’ve started thinking that (for me) it’s less a matter of thankfulness than for gratefulness.   You may want to thank somebody, but you don’t actually have anyone to grate.  Gratefulness is just an attitude of feeling appreciative for whatever good things you have.  Some of us have lots of good things.   Some around the world have, frankly, zero.   Still, almost everyone reading this will have *some* good things, and the point of this holiday is to get our minds off the bad things – God knows there are enough of them —  and think about the good ones.  At least for a couple of days.

Over the past few years I have developed a meditation practice, and I find this significantly helps develop my sense of gratefulness.  It makes me more thoughtful, reflective, open, and at peace.  And I’ve come to be grateful for very deep things: not just things connected with my relationships, work, and environment, but the very fact of my existence.  I reflect a lot on just what it means to be alive.

We are here for far less than the blink of an eye in our 13.8-billion-year-old universe.  But we are here now.  We have life.  And, most amazing, we have consciousness. We are sentient, thinking, conscious beings in a universe that is 99.99% dead; what virtually everything else (that we know of) that is alive is not self-aware.  We are.  It’s a miracle.  And worth reflecting on.

This year I’m grateful not only for the many good things I have, but the fact that I am.  For a brief moment, I exist.  And I will always be grateful that I have existed, until I do no more.


Why Don’t You Just Believe?
The Annual Meeting of Biblical Scholars, and ALL Those Books!!



  1. Avatar
    Gary  November 27, 2019

    Well said. Happy Thanksgiving!

  2. Avatar
    Pegill7  November 27, 2019


    Thanks for such a heartfelt perspective on the meaning of life. It’s what I needed for the troublesome times we are living through now when so many so-called Christians are flooding Facebook with their praises for Mr. 666. And to think that I never before believed in the Anti-Christ!

  3. Avatar
    lbjorke  November 27, 2019

    Thank you for your thoughtful words. I’m grateful for your work writing books that free people to change their beliefs, and for your charitable work that helps others. If there were a god (and I think there is some kind of creative force) s/he’d be proud of you.

  4. Avatar
    Maglaw  November 27, 2019

    Lovely, thoughtful essay. Especially the Thanksgiving part.
    On a different note, the reading I’ve done lately is pretty clear about there having been no “massacre of the innocents” – that this is quite likely another made-up narrative in order to make a point. One of the arguments is that Herod had no problem with anyone knowing how brutal he was, yet there is no record of any such thing outside of the NT. Thoughts on that, Bart?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 29, 2019

      Yes, I think it’s a complete legend; it’s mentioned only in Matthew. No reference to it in any other ancient source, completely implausible, and based on teh idea that a king would be threatened by a recently born peasant who was known to be the King of the Jews.

      • Barfo
        Barfo  November 29, 2019

        You would think that Herod was aware that only a Roman emperor/senate could appoint a king. In addition to antagonizing the Jewish population was not what I’m sure the Roman leaders would want…..and killing young children would have certainly caused an uproar.

      • Avatar
        mwbaugh  November 29, 2019

        Part of Matthew’s intentional parallels between Jesus and Moses?

      • Avatar
        Tempo1936  November 30, 2019

        How do fundamentalist rationalize the brutal killing of innocent Jewish children particularly as part of the Christmas story. Most of the time that part of the story is not mentioned in my experience.

  5. Avatar
    Bill  November 27, 2019

    Glad to have my wonderful friends here at the Hacienda!

    Love to B&S
    From B&B

  6. Avatar
    AstaKask  November 27, 2019

    Do you ever get letters asking you to read John 3:16 and it will change your life?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 29, 2019

      Ha, I have a funny story about that. Think I’ll post it.

  7. Avatar
    Apocryphile  November 27, 2019

    Great post, but I think existence is broader than that. When we say “we exist” or “I exist” as individuals, that’s certainly true on one level, but I think our existence is tied to a far broader reality than our individual personalities or ego. Whatever constitutes our essence is far deeper than that. Just my two cents, FWIW.

    btw – also, I’d be careful with the concept of what is or is not conscious, and especially with making pronouncements on the subject of animal self-awareness or non-awareness. We’re only beginning to explore the mental realm, but I think one thing we can already say is that there is no hard and fast demarcation line between us and them in this regard. Still, I agree – we can be grateful for the high level of self-awareness we enjoy as humans, but since we also spend a good deal of our mental lives either living in the past or worrying about the future, we’re perhaps *less* aware than they of the present moment…

    • Bart
      Bart  November 29, 2019

      Thanks. I’m not making pronouncements about it so much as saying what I think myself. But I get your point!

  8. Avatar
    CarlGregg  November 27, 2019

    As you are likely aware, Thanksgiving is not so unproblematic, apolitical, or lacking in national boundaries from an Indigenous perspective….

  9. Avatar
    smackemyackem  November 27, 2019

    You made an impression.


    • Avatar
      smackemyackem  November 27, 2019

      Anything to share from the FCM conference?

      • Bart
        Bart  November 29, 2019

        It was pretty amazing. Don’t know if the others are publshing their papers or not. I probably won’t be, since it was really for the moment for other scholars, not for wide distribution.

  10. Avatar
    veritas  November 27, 2019

    Your personal stories are truly amazing. I hope you and your loved ones enjoy your Thanksgiving. I always wondered if you *actually* spent time with your family. You have so much on your plate, how could you possibly? I don’t need an answer. Balance is something you must of mastered. Cheers!!!!!

  11. Avatar
    Michael  November 27, 2019

    “My personal view is that we would be flipping crazy not to be deeply and eternally grateful for the freedoms we have in this country won in hard-fought wars.”

    The Revolutionary war won us many freedoms. Sadly, many other wars throughout the history of this country have been unjust and immoral. Two examples are Vietnam and the Iraq war of 2003. Both wars were based on lies and brought nothing but death and destruction to many innocent people. Those are two of many wars that make me hard to be patriotic.

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    Brand3000  November 27, 2019

    Dr. Ehrman,

    Thanks for those sentiments and managing this excellent and informative blog all year. If you ever do turn back to God, he will be there with open arms. “…he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also…” All hallucinations???

    • Bart
      Bart  November 29, 2019

      No, I think some of these are legends, not hallucinations.

  13. Avatar
    roy  November 28, 2019

    an excellent post, turning 65 this year(very hard to believe, how does it happen so quickly) you definitely begin seeing life differently and reflect upon both the past and the future in a different way. I have enjoyed this site very much this past year, thanks for all you do and happy holidays

  14. Avatar
    ShonaG  November 28, 2019

    I’m Scottish so I don’t celebrate thanks giving. When I was 2 my mum left my dad on Christmas day, whne I was 4 she left the Celtic supporter (don’t remember his name) on Christmas day and then she left my step dad at 18 at Christmas. Christmas is still good and you should celebrate it!
    My big brother and sister went to stay with my dad when I was 5, that’s not something that stops you celebrating its a constant reminder that for 38 yrs I didn’t have my sister still haven’t met my brother don’t think he can cope with our childhood, so whoever you have as family that time is precious. Celebrate and be thankful for whoever you have at that moment.

  15. Avatar
    JamesFouassier  November 28, 2019

    You should philosophize (?) more often, Professor; you’re really good at it ! A happy and peaceful Thanksgiving to you and yours.

  16. fefferdan
    fefferdan  November 28, 2019

    Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday, too! Although now that I have grandkids Christmas is making a major comeback. Anyway, I wrote a song about it here: https://soundcloud.com/dan-fefferman/thank-you-for-thanksgiving

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    Boltonian  November 28, 2019

    I am with you all the way on gratitude, although I don’t need a special occasion for that. Not so much thankfulness for the reasons you give. The world divides between optimists and pessimists (a bit more nuanced than that, of course) – optimists enjoy the present, look forward to the future and realise that we are more fortunate than our forbears. Pessimists, however, like my best mate who we are seeing tomorrow for lunch, thought everything was great in the past, think the present is only a precursor to the misery we about to encounter in the future. I say to him that he should be forced to read ‘Factfulness’ by the late Hans Rosling and ‘Enlightenment Now,’ by Stephen Pinker, until he recants.
    I am not, however, a great fan of national holidays: retailers tell me that they don’t make any more money – it is just more concentrated at certain times. And that in itself causes problems of congestion and overcrowding.Far better to allow people to take their holidays when they wish: many of a religious persuasion might well choose Christmas, Easter or whenever but many more wouldn’t. My favourite day of the winter is a fine wine evening for friends and neighbours we host at home between Christmas and New Year (collecting fine wine is a hobby of mine). You would be very welcome, Bart, if you ever find yourself in our part of England at that time of the year.

  18. Avatar
    cristianp  November 28, 2019

    Puritans and Protestants in the 17th-century USA tried unsuccessfully to eliminate the Christmas celebration. It seemed to them a mixture of Bacanal paganism and Catholic ritualism, so they tried to erase it completely from the calendar. Also many Methodist leaders declared that it was the worst date of the year to preach of Jesus. However, Thanksgiving was a separate matter.
    So many customs that Latin Americans have copied from the USA. “Thanksgiving” is by far the only tradition in the USA that I regret that we have not copied. But it’s obvious, we don’t have to run to the stores to get crammed with shopping. IT IS A FESTIVITY THAT WE SHOULD ADOPT.
    They say that the older we are, the faster time passes. There are several theories about why this sensation, but now I will not go into details. What I do want to rescue is that this experience should encourage us to be more and more PRESENT as time goes by. To be GRATEFUL for each day. Don’t waste time in fights over who is right and ask FORGIVENESS. To have a life with clear INTENTION about how we want to live it

  19. Avatar
    Kmbwhitmore  November 28, 2019

    The answer to the question of who we should thank is found in John 12:30. Just before he went to the cross Jesus tells us that “the devil, the ruler of this world is about to be cast out”. With the resurrection we know he was successful. When the devil ruled this world there was nothing but war, misery and shortages. Jesus accomplished what no one else was able to do-he resisted all temptation and defeated the devil who is the very source of suffering.

    • Avatar
      RICHWEN90  November 30, 2019

      For the last 2000 years or so the devil has been cast out? No wars? No suffering? No pogroms? No genocide? No hunger? No disease? I would never have guessed!

  20. Avatar
    Matt2239  November 28, 2019

    People who say Thanksgiving is not a religious holiday are wrong. If it’s not a religious holiday, to whom are we supposed to give thanks — a bunch of politicians? Thanksgiving is a religious holiday, and everyone knows it. And we don’t have to worry that the Supreme Court will take it away either, because if they cancel Thanksgiving, then they also have to cancel Black Friday, the biggest, most-celebrated shopping day of the year. That’s not going to happen. Ever. Happy Thanksgiving.

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