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Truth and History

In my recent post in which I made a paean to memory – which will be the way I end my current book dealing with memory and the historical Jesus — I said the following.

MY REMARK:  “The comment that I sometimes get from readers that I find puzzling or disheartening is when they tell me that if there is something in the Gospels that is not historical, then it cannot be true, and if it is not true, then it is not worth reading.  My sense is that many readers will find it puzzling or even disheartening that I find this view puzzling and disheartening.   But I do.

Please call me a prophet if you must, but I would like to point out that a number of readers on the blog did indeed find my view puzzling and disheartening.   Mainly puzzling.   The following was a very well reasoned response from a reader, to which I would like to reply:

READER’S COMMENT:  Indeed, stories that aren’t true are no less worthwhile to read. The Bible most definitely is an important part of literature that should be read and studied (I wouldn’t want you to be out of work!). However, I’m not sure I understand what you mean by the word ‘truth’. To me (and I am not a native English speaker so maybe this is a linguistical problem), truth has always meant something that corresponds to reality. If a story didn’t happen, I don’t see how it can be true. The very definition of a true story is that it happened. It can still be important, have significance in our lives, etc, but I don’t see how it can be called truth.

I completely understand this point of view.  It is a point of view that I myself had for a very long time.  It’s not one that I hold now, and I want to explain why.

In my view, there can be true stories that never happened.   In fact…


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What Can We Know about the Life of Jesus?
On Being Controversial



  1. Avatar
    timber84  May 7, 2015

    I was thinking about the swords the disciples used when Jesus was arrested. Could have some of the disciples purchased the swords when they arrived in Jerusalem because they were afraid of getting mugged at night while staying in the city? Does this scenario have any historical plausibility?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 8, 2015

      I deal with just this question in my book! I argue that it’s not historical. But other scholars think that it is: Jesus and his disciples were expecting an armed rebellion….

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        godspell  May 11, 2015

        People often confuse ‘true’ with ‘real’–they are two different concepts.

        I like what Susan Sontag once wrote–I’ll probably mess up the quote–“The opposite of fact is fiction; the opposite of one great truth may be another great truth.” Reality is too complex to ever be fully understood and summarized. We divide our perception of reality up into perceived truths, which often conflict with each other. For example:

        Each individual is a self-sustaining universe, responsible only to him or herself and should seek his or her own bliss and self-fulfillment, because life is brief.

        Each individual is part of a family, and should work for the survival and betterment of that family, because the family lives on after you.

        Each individual is part of a community/nation, and should be ready to sacrifice him or herself for the good of that collective unit, because that is how the greatest number of people can thrive.

        Each individual and each family is part of humanity and we are all brothers and sisters, striving towards some distant goal together, perhaps under the guidance of some overseeing force. This would be Jesus’ truth, and yet we see evidence of him also hearking to the other three.

        All of these statements are true, and none of them agree with each other, and none of them are ‘factual’–we have to choose how to balance these contrasting agendas in our lives–rare is the person who devotes him or herself solely to one of these truths. And no amount of factual analysis will help us choose how to balance them out, because there are things that can’t be reduced to mere formulas. There is no one who does not act on faith sometimes. Absolutely no one.

        It always haunts me, thinking of Jesus on the cross, obviously questioning the choices he’d made, wondering if he’d been wrong, calling out to God in despair. This, to me, is the most powerful expression of the human experience I can think of. This is why he is more important to me now that I think of him as a man than he ever was when I thought of him as some all-powerful being. This is why I get angry when people try to erase him from history. They know not what they do.

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    Judith  May 8, 2015

    That is too good to be a mere post on a blog. It belongs in one of those books we’d always treasure.

    Thank you, Dr. Ehrman.

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    toejam  May 8, 2015

    It really comes down to how one defines the word “truth”. All words break down into definitional arbitrariness when one continually zooms in on their grey-area.

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    Adam0685  May 8, 2015

    Yeah, and there are tons of other examples: when some of the early Christians said Jesus is the “lamb of God” their meaning was not literally true…they didn’t think Jesus was literally a lamb. Just because Jesus is not literally a lamb doesn’t mean it wasn’t a true statement to them.

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    Todd  May 8, 2015

    I agree. To throw out the Bible because we know, through careful analysis, that it is not totally true historically does not mean that it has no value. In fact, it may have more value than if it was simply an account of events.

    The Bible communicates how a people viewed their world and their place in that world. It communicates their values and how those values were acted out in their lives.

    Many of the specifics may be outdated or simply wrong ethically, such as stoning one’s son for misbehavior. Overall, however, it communicates a message that is of value to us today…that there is much more than what we see and do on an everyday basis, and that there are eternal values that we should hold sacred: compassion, love, forgiveness, charity, and so on.

    Therefore, because the story of the woman caught in adultery may be historically untrue, there is a lesson of compassion being told, and in the story of Nicodemus and Jesus, involving the play on words, “born again” and “born from above” is a story that tells us a truth that we are transformed, not by our own power but by a power greater than us…from above.

    It doesn’t really matter if the events being described in the Scriptures are historically accurate. What is important is how we apply the essence of the message of these stories to our lives and to our relationships within our current life experience.

    That is how I can read scripture meaningfully knowing that not all is historically true.

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    bamurray  May 8, 2015

    I’m afraid I’m on the reader’s side on this one!

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    RGM-ills  May 8, 2015

    How ironic that we intend a lesson about telling the truth by telling a lie. I would prefer that the cherry tree story be purged or be told properly. “Son, there was a story invented and told many times to stress the honesty of little George Washington. It isn’t true, but it was used to convey how important honesty was to George…”

    This is like me typing a lesson story about stealing by plagiarizing.

    • Avatar
      mjordan20149  May 9, 2015

      I tell my students that, if Washington had never told a lie, we would have a picture of the queen on the wall in the classroom. Washington was good at deceiving people, and kept the British in the dark about his intentions numerous times (Trenton and Princeton are excellent examples) Washington was a good liar, and that is one reason that the US became an independent nation.

      The larger issue here is the nature of historical “truth.” You can’t read history without being confused. Different historians view the same events in contradictory ways. This is even true of the gospels. Mark 8:11-13 reads

      “The Pharisees came and began to question Jesus. To test him, they asked him for a sign from heaven. 12 He sighed deeply and said, “Why does this generation ask for a sign? Truly I tell you, no sign will be given to it.” 13 Then he left them, got back into the boat and crossed to the other side”

      Matthew and Luke spin this passage differently, adding that no sign will be given other than the sign of Jonah. This is often interpreted as Jesus referring to his resurrection.

      John, however, is very interested in providing us with “signs.” There are seven “signs” reported in the gospel, and those signs are given as indicators that Jesus is the divine Messiah. This seems to contradict what the synoptics are saying. We can’t read history, even sacred history, without coming across contradictions.

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        godspell  May 13, 2015

        True, but when we look more closely, and put aside our preconceptions, we can come closer to knowing what really happened. Common sense is the best guide. John is clearly the least reliable; Mark is clearly the most reliable. None are completely reliable, and that would be true of any source from this era. To me, it’s really striking to go from Mark to Matthew to Luke to John and see how the story gets more complicated and less believable every time. This is what you’d expect to happen, and it’s what does happen. If another century had passed before they started writing the story down, no telling what it would have ended up looking like.

  8. Goat
    Goat  May 8, 2015


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    Jason  May 8, 2015

    I think maybe what the Washington story conveys isn’t so much “truth” as “ideal,” but using a story which is demonstrably (or at least documented to be) “untrue” as the archetypal narrative about telling the truth has to be the best explanation of “situational irony” I can imagine!

    • Avatar
      godspell  May 13, 2015

      I was told that story as a kid, I read it in books, and it was only later that I found out it wasn’t true. There was also the one about his throwing a silver dollar across the Potomac. There were also innumerable false stories told about Abraham Lincoln, that started cropping up right after he was assassinated.

      The Irish peasantry never read Jonathan Swift, but they had this idea he’d been a champion of the poor in his position as Dean of St. Patrick’s Church in Dublin, and there were a lot of folk tales about him that he might have enjoyed, about what a dashing gentleman he was, a great one for the ladies, almost a Robin Hood figure. These stories were all part of an oral tradition, and a small number were preserved.

      People make up stories about real people all the time. And those stories often have a truth of their own to impart.

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    Philbert  May 8, 2015

    Awesome Post Thank You.

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    gavriel  May 8, 2015

    Educational legends. But it is often running against the spirit of the legend to claim it is historically true, right? That is the dilemma.

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    RonaldTaska  May 8, 2015

    Hmmm? Very thought provoking. I guess we need different words for “truth”: Historical accuracy vs. allegorical/metaphorical stories which reveal truths. I still think it’s hard to build a theology on “stories” even if they reveal “truths.” At some point, a theology needs a firm historical base, especially if it imposes its truth on others, or it’s not “true.”

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    RonaldTaska  May 8, 2015

    Bottom Line: I think whether the Resurrection of Jesus is a historical truth or a fictional story, illustrating some truths in a literary way, makes a huge difference. I might be willing to do some things, like die, for a Resurrected Jesus that I would not do for literary truths, even good ones, like those in Aesop’s Fables..

    • Bart
      Bart  May 8, 2015

      Yes, I agree there’s a huge difference. But they are different because they involve different *kinds* of truth, imho.

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    BrianUlrich  May 8, 2015

    I think Obiwan Kenobi had this conversation with Luke in Return of the Jedi.

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    Wilusa  May 8, 2015

    I’ve always *hated* the “George Washington and the cherry tree” story! I’ve never had children, but if I did, I’d only mention it to them for fear of their hearing it elsewhere, and taking it to be fact. I certainly wouldn’t tell them I saw anything worthwhile in it.

    I can appreciate *symbolism*, if everyone recognizes it as symbolism. (I’m thinking of a Communion wafer symbolizing the body of Jesus.) But that doesn’t constitute “truth.”

    I wonder how many others here – if any- share my dislike for the “cherry tree” story?

    • Avatar
      godspell  May 15, 2015

      I think the real story of George Washington is much more interesting. This was a man who aspired to power, was tempted by it, but ultimately decided that limited power over a limited time was preferable to unlimited power for life. It was a hugely influential choice. Washington was no plaster saint, but he was a genuinely great man.

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    Stephen  May 8, 2015

    So Prof Ehrman I take your point.

    But just for the sake of argument how would you respond to Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:12-19? Isn’t that just the sort of historicist point of view you are criticizing?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 8, 2015

      Yes, Paul was quite insistent that if the resurrection was not an actual physical event, there was no such thing as Christianity. I disagree with him. (As did many early Christians!)

      • Avatar
        Wilusa  May 9, 2015

        I’m sure that’s what the Catholic Church teaches! And I respect their position as making sense – though I, of course, am a non-believer.

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    Jeffreycb  May 8, 2015

    I have trouble with your explanation of what “a true Lesson” is. I can see that I might tell my child that they should be honest and as an example tell them about the story of young George Washington. My problem with it is that it did not happen and consequently George Washington is not as honest as my story makes him out to be. As soon as my child understands that, the lesson is lost about George’s honesty (though the lesson may have stuck) and now my truthfulness is suspect in his/her eyes. The story seems to me to have value only as long as my child believes me with no questions asked. George Washington didn’t do this as a young man but I’m making it up to convey a moral lesson BUT all the other story’s I told you about him are true. Forget about the real George and follow the mythical George.
    I believe the Bible is worth reading and studying because about 2,000 years ago mankind (humans, homo sapiens) in the western hemisphere produced it, many more men/women felt it was worth while to believe in, live their lives by and build their culture on. I think what I think today in 2015 largely because of what is in the Bible.
    I’m very anxious about sending the above two little paragraphs in to you but it’s what I thought after reading your blog today though I feel poorly qualified to question you. Bart, thanks so much for your blog, your books, lectures, interviews and debates. What you do in respect to the Bible and how you do it is very important to me.

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    Matt7  May 8, 2015

    I would be more sympathetic to this view if there was a note to the reader right before Gen. 1:1, which made it clear that nothing in the 66 books should be taken literally. A short note like that would have saved a lot of lives.

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    ROY  May 8, 2015

    Amen to that, read Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth

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    drdavid600  May 8, 2015

    My preference is that the story of Washington and the cherry tree never be told again. It’s a lie. The “element of truth” in it is obsolete. Was Washington unusually honest? I don’t know. If I wanted to know, I’d read his biographers, searching for someone who is a good empiricist, disappointed if I see signs of an author who is not to be trusted, such as someone who told the cherry tree story without immediately mentioning that it is admitted fantasy.

    My daughter tells my grandsons that there is Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny, as her parents told her. Someday she may apologize for this deception, perhaps laying a seed for the boys to understand cultural evolution in the process, including religion. Personally I think “religious truth” is an oxymoron. As Bertrand Russell argued, love and truth are the ultimate good things, but only if love if active, “benevolence” he called it, and truth is verifiable, “knowledge” he called it. That’s what I mean by “true”.

    God and I have a deal, whoever and whatever God is, the real love and truth that exists in our culture, maybe, whatever. We don’t lie to each other. At least I don’t consider anything that lies to me to be God. Maybe I’m wrong. I doubt it, though. It’s a fundamental principle to the experience of I and Thou.

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      Matt7  May 9, 2015

      I agree. There are many truths to be gleaned from Aesop’s fables, because we all know they’re fables. if everyone accepted the Bible as a book of fables, we could all learn a lot and be happy.

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