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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.



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?



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 intensely interested, I’m concerned with social issues, etc. etc.) – my life is very strange indeed in others.  I’m a professional scholar of the Bible and an expert on such things as the historical Jesus and the Gospels and the history of early Christianity who is not, himself, a Christian.  How many people like *that* do you see on the street?

So my present life is normal in a lot of ways but also pretty weird from an outside perspective.  Still, my personal history is even more weird.  After high school, instead of going off to Kansas University like most of my friends, to major in English or Business (the two leading options at the time for me) and to be on the debate team (my high school passion) (my high school debate colleague was the national college champion as a sophomore at KU), I went to Moody Bible Institute to be trained in the Bible and theology.  I was all of 17.

Instead of learning about literature, history, philosophy, chemistry, biology, classics, psychology – or anything else, I learned about the Bible.  Massively.  Intensely.  Day in and day out.  My courses were not on, say, Shakespeare, Sociology 101, Physics or whatever.  They were on The Gospel of John, The book of Daniel, Evangelism, and Systematic Theology.   At the time it was amazingly stimulating and exciting, and I was unusually passionate about it.  I went from being a smart kid who did well in his classes, but didn’t do a whole lot to excel (in high school) to being a driven and intense guy who couldn’t get enough of studies.   I studied in almost all my free time.  On average I pulled an all-nighter once every week or two, not partying (we didn’t party), but studying.

In addition to doing everything I could to ace all my courses, I spent time memorizing books of the Bible on my own.

On top of our courses we had weekly practicums (I can’t remember exactly what we called them at Moody), a kind of ministry obligation.  One semester it was going door-to-door in a Chicago suburb one afternoon each week trying to convert people; one semester it was working as a chaplain assistant at Cook County Hospital; one semester it was working as a radio counsellor at a Christian radio station; two semesters it was serving as a youth pastor in a church running Bible study groups, prayer meetings, and social events for the kids.  This is what I did with my time, instead of going to frat parties, exploring the realms of sex and substances, watching lots of t.v., going to football and basketball games.  (I did have girlfriends, of course; but a good bit of our relationships involve the spiritual life. [!])

So, all this is to say that it was a pretty weird way to spend your first three years out of high school.  As you can imagine, it had a rather severe effect on my friendships back home.  Most of the kids I had hung out with in high school as a normal American adolescent had very little in common with me once I headed off to Bible-Boot Camp.

And so, the question I’m being asked here is whether all that was an advantage or disadvantage to me intellectually in my chosen line of work, as a professor of early Christianity at a secular research university.

The answer is pretty obvious, at least to me from the inside.  There were some massively serious advantages and (maybe even more) some massively serious disadvantages.

Most critical scholars of the Bible (that is, who do not think the Bible is infallible, but who approach it from a critical perspective) have a religious background of some kind.  But very rarely is it the kind of hard-core fanatical fundamentalism that I was into.  When these people – many friends of mine – went off to do their master’s work at, say, a seminary, and/or a PhD, they didn’t have to unlearn much of what they had learned in order to start learning what they had to learn.  They had a critically informed faith at the outset of their studies, and they kept pretty much the faith they always had, though critically refined with the passing of time and their acquisition of new knowledge

Unlike them, I had to experience a massive paradigm shift in my thinking about the Bible in order to become a (real, critical) scholar of the Bible.  My *advantage* was that I actually knew the content of the Bible better than most anyone.    My *disadvantage* is that the way I understood the Bible had to be completely changed/overturned/revamped to make sense of what I was reading and learning.  That was very hard to do.  Very hard indeed.

I’m trying to think of an analogy.  It would be kind of like growing up in American capitalist, free enterprise society, and studying economics passionately with a capitalist understanding both of how things do were and how they should work, and then converting to become a Marxist.  When you converted you would have factual data at your disposal already.  But the way you understood each and every datum – the principles of the economy, the history of economic relations, the effect of economy on society, and every other related thing – would now be radically different.  Your views, your ideas, your assumptions about everything would have to be reworked from scratch.  It would be very discombobulating.

But that’s not probably a great analogy, since my spiritual formation affected not just my intellectual understanding of the Bible, but my entire life – it dictated everything from my views of religion (obviously) to my understanding of the world itself to all my social relationships to my ethics to my views of politics to gender relations (my views of women as a fundamentalist are not something I’m proud of) to personal life decisions to… everything.   All of that flopped when I moved from a fundamentalist to a critical approach to the Bible.

So was my background a help or a hindrance in becoming a secular scholar of the Bible?  I’ll say some more words about that in my next post.

The Academic Study of the New Testament
Decent Burials for Crucified Victims: A Blast From the Past



  1. Avatar
    anthonygale  October 22, 2017

    Do you think, perhaps ironically, that your fundamentalist background may have increased rather than decreased the likelihood of you losing your faith? At least compared to your non fundamentalist counterparts? Unlike in your case, what they learned would have been consistent with what they already believed. But in your case, you either had to do a lot of apolozing or you had to change. And once you change, whats to stop further progression over time?

    I’ve heard people like Ken Ham say, in response to obvious discrepancies in the Bible, say something along the lines of “well if we say this bit isnt true, why should we believe anything else, so we have to say its all true.” That seems like conscious rather than unconscious denial to me, and a lot of people will see through that. People who force their kids to go to church, when they hate it, are often suprised when kids stops going as adults. Its suprising me that there isnt a larger minority of people who realize there is a need to take a more critical approach to the Bible and are willing to change long held beliefs and practices. I understand the resistance to change, but it seems that it is ironically counterptoductive in regards to keeping many people in the faith.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 23, 2017

      Possibly — but as I’ve tried to emphasize on the blog over the years, I didn’t go from being a fundamentalist to being an atheist. I was a mainline, liberal Protestant for many years before leaving hte faith, for resaons unrelated to my study of the Bible.

      • Avatar
        godspell  October 25, 2017

        Did you find liberal Christianity as satisfying and immersive, emotionally speaking, as fundamentalist evangelicism?

        People who start at one extreme are often drawn to the other. Neo-conservatives began as Stalinist Marxists. Eldridge Cleaver (talked to him on the phone once, briefly) began as an ardent black power nationalist, and ended up a right-wing reactionary, because of his disillusioning experience in the Soviet Union.

        I would tend to think your scholarship and sense of humor will serve as an anchor, to keep you from getting too swept away–that and the fact you are constantly reminded that atheists can be just as nutty as the most dogmatic hidebound Christians. And are, if anything, worse spellers. On the internet, anyway. 😉

        • Bart
          Bart  October 27, 2017

          No not really! I thought it was completely *right*. But it emphasized questions more than answers (which I personally continue to think is far, far, far better. But not as smugly satisfying)

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    rivercrowman  October 22, 2017

    Bart, I’m glad to read one of your passions is working out. That will help keep you going for the benefit of your family, and the rest of us. On a humorous note, in your younger days did you ever pray that your favorite basketball team would win a critical game? My born-again neighbor claims to have done that at least once, from the bleachers!

  3. talmoore
    talmoore  October 22, 2017

    Dr. Ehrman, I’ve got a question for you. Since you were once an evangelical Christian, and I’ve never been even remotely close to something like an evangelical Christian, maybe you can help me understand how evangelicals think. Whenever I watch Sarah Huckee Sanders flatout lie for Donald trump, the only thing I can think is how ironic it is that the daughter of an evangelical Baptist preacher is lying for and complicit with a man who I — were I someone who believed in such things — could be convinced must be the Antichrist. I mean, if one were to create a list of the personality traits one would associate with the Antichrist, Donald Trump would probably hit every item.
    So let’s just cut to the chase. What the f**k are these people thinking?!?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 23, 2017

      My guess is that she doesn’t think she’s explicitly lying, even if others sure think she is. On the other hand, in my past I sometimes caught conservative evangelicals red-handed in lying pure and simple about things; they seemed to think that lying served a greater purpose. Evangelicals are humans like everyone else!

      • talmoore
        talmoore  October 23, 2017

        Okay, that supports something I was already entertaining. A classic example of cognitive dissonance is someone who believes that a lie isn’t really a lie if it serves a greater truth. In the minds of the 80% of American evangelical Christians who voted for a guy like Trump, I assume they must have thought that behind the monstrous facade lay a genuine saint. I mean, that’s the only logical reason these people cannot seem to see the abject nightmare that we all seem to be able to see. Or…it could just be that Voltaire was correct when he said (to paraphrase): “Anyone who can be made to believe absurdities can be make to commit atrocities.”

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    Hume  October 22, 2017

    I’m reading the NT again! What could possibly be the ‘abomination that causes desolation’ in Mark 13:14?!! Anti-Christ? Lucifer?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 23, 2017

      It’s the statue of the emperor to be set up in the temple of Jerusalem, an abomination that will cause the temple’s sanctity to be destroyed.

      • Avatar
        stevenpounders  October 23, 2017

        Do you think Jesus was still alive when Caligula’s statue being placed in the temple became a threat? Or was this idea only attributed to Jesus by later writers?

        On a bigger note, how much of Jesus’ apocalyptic preaching was actually his, and how much was a result of “predictions” of the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70 being attributed to him by later writers?

        • Bart
          Bart  October 24, 2017

          No, he was long dead. The Gospels writers are making him *predict* what they know would happen in his future, but in their past.

      • Avatar
        jdmartin21  October 23, 2017

        …not a veiled reference to the destruction of the temple?

    • talmoore
      talmoore  October 23, 2017

      In the year 40 or 41 CE the emperor Caligula attempted to have a statue of himself erected in the Jerusalem Temple. The Jews went to the Roman governor in Caesarea and pleaded with him to ignore his emperor’s order. The Jews were even willing to die to prevent this from happening. The governor, having sympathy for the Jews, attempted to delay the statue as long as he could, but Caligula grew impatient and ordered his governor to return to Rome to face trial. Fortunately for said governor (sorry, I’m too lazy to look him up) Caligula was assassinated before he arrived at Rome, and the entire controversy ended. The Jewish Christians in Judea living through this major event might have (probably did) interpret this event as the fulfillment of Daniel’s “abomination of desolation” prophecy, so it found its way into Christian thinking, Christian doctrine, and, eventually, Christian gospel.

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    darren  October 22, 2017

    My Catholicism informed my entire outlook, and realizing there was no divine plan for me and the world was devastating in so many ways. There’s really no analogy for going from intense belief to disbelief — learning is suffering and all that — but it led me to look at a host of issues with new eyes, to search for truth in new places.

    Still, it’s a drag knowing there’s no heaven filled with infinite and endless happiness waiting for us. Would have been pretty sweet.

    • Avatar
      webattorney  November 1, 2017

      Who knows? There still might be a heaven but just not under the Christianity setting.

      • Avatar
        GregLogan  November 3, 2017

        Web –

        …or a “Christian” setting VERY DIFFERENT from the evangelical setting….

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    Wilusa  October 22, 2017

    I’m always amazed by *everything* about your background. Can’t figure out how some young people can become so interested in religion!

    When I was, even, a young adult, I thought of “the Gospel” as a part of Mass during which we had to stand up, while the priest went up in the pulpit and read some deadly dull stuff, in English. (The rest of the Mass was in Latin.) I always sat far enough back that I could tell when to kneel, sit, or stand by observing others.

    Eager to read your next post!

  7. Jeff
    Jeff  October 22, 2017

    Which football team do you root for when the North Carolina Tarheels play the Moody Mountain Lions?

  8. Avatar
    ardeare  October 22, 2017

    It’s interesting that 68% of American atheists are men and only 32% are comprised of women. http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/06/01/10-facts-about-atheists/

    • talmoore
      talmoore  October 23, 2017

      Statistics show that by far the most religious person in America is: A) Female, B) Black, C) Lacks a college education.

      • Avatar
        dragonfly  October 24, 2017

        That’s interesting. Why do you think that is?

    • Avatar
      Wilusa  October 24, 2017

      Is it possible that statistics about “atheists” could be unreliable simply because some people are unwilling to use that term? I – a woman, as it happens – describe myself as a “non-theist,” though if I were being included in a poll, I’d (very reluctantly) say “atheist.”

      A further thought: Are women more likely to remember that one woman – something like Madelyn Murray O’Hare? (I may not have any part of that name right) – who was a *militant* atheist many years ago, and equate “atheism” with being like her? I think that may be a factor in my case! On some level, I imagine an “atheist” as a raving fanatic, bent on converting the world to her views.

      • Avatar
        Wilusa  October 24, 2017

        By the way, I don’t know whether that woman I heard of in my youth really was a “raving fanatic.” That was just the impression I had of her.

  9. Avatar
    Judith  October 22, 2017

    Thank you for this, Dr. Ehrman.

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    dwcriswell  October 22, 2017

    How many people did you directly convert on a one to one basis by knocking on doors etc.? I always wondered if that kind of proselytizing works>

    • Bart
      Bart  October 23, 2017

      Ha! None!! But we did it becuase the Bible told us to!

  11. Avatar
    Healy53  October 22, 2017

    Thank you for sharing this. I look forward to your next post.

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    Jim Cherry  October 23, 2017

    Can you expand some on “(my views of women as a fundamentalist are not something I’m proud of)”?
    Do they have parallels in fundamentalist Judaism and Islam?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 23, 2017

      We thought women were inferior to men and that wives were to be submissive to husbands. Hey, the Bible says so!

      • Avatar
        llamensdor  October 25, 2017

        Al Sisi (sp?), the Egyptian president, said fairly recently that islam was the only major religion that had not gone through a reformation, and the need for reformation was absolutely vital now.

      • Avatar
        webattorney  November 1, 2017

        I can tell you that my wife, who is a Christian, is not submissive to me at all, and gets mad at me when I tell her that the Bible says so. lol

  13. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  October 23, 2017

    1, I made the same “paradigm shift” and, indeed, it is “massive.”

    2. Your best writing is when you write about your personal experiences. Thanks for sharing this.

    3. What you describe is an experience with and in a culture. The view is quite different depending on whether one is inside or outside this culture.

  14. Avatar
    godspell  October 23, 2017

    The question answers itself–both. Probably true of any background. For everything you learn, there is a price to pay–because to see one thing very clearly is to see other things less clearly.

    Early beliefs, with their adherent habits of mind, have lasting effects, that are not dispelled when you shed those beliefs. You are no less affected by religion when you react against it than when you profess it–I’d argue you’re more impacted by religion when you rebel against it than when you passively accept it.

    But the scholar’s goal, always and everywhere, should be neither to embrace or attack human ideas and beliefs–but to understand them. Where do they come from, why did we need them, how may they still be helpful–or not. And we should assume that there is a destructive capacity in all such beliefs, theist and atheist alike, while acknowledging that we’re unable to exist as human beings without believing in things we can’t prove.

  15. Avatar
    ask21771  October 23, 2017

    What was the criteria for a book to be accepted as cannon

    • Bart
      Bart  October 23, 2017

      It had to be ancient, connected with an apostle, widely used in the churches, and orthodox.

  16. Avatar
    GregLogan  October 23, 2017


    Thanks for the discussion – none of this surprises me – knowing the details of your journey. I have maintained an eye on these details because while yours does not exactly parallel mine – the larger concepts are identical, e.g. the massive paradigm shift. I was essentially raised atheist – found by God while on LSD at age 20+ – brought to Christ by God (no people involved) – spent time in a fundamentalist Pentecostal church that was a semi-cult through my 20s (knee-jerk hated those demonized “liberals/Democrats” because that was simply the ethos – oh, and the abortion thing…), experienced massive disappointment in my 30s, etc, etc. and a lot more.

    Ultimately I transitioned from the Bible as the inerrant inspired Word of God – to the critical literary method of scholars – approaching all these things from a scholarly rather than apologetic method – and now find I despise (perhaps that is generous…) evangelicalism – and its leadership – more than I ever did when I was an atheist (not entirely unusual I realize).

    Thus, I have a “weird” life as well (and I did not even get to the visions and manifestations…:-) ). Did all this help or hurt – at the tender age of 60?? Ultimately I am as comfortable with atheists as well as tongue talkers – and can walk into an Evangelical Sunday school – Greek Bible in tow… and be accepted – and then begin to ask the delicately phrased questions….

    Yeah – it does help – our disparate experiences provides a great deal of perspective that I would never otherwise have, e.g. I had no religious baggage of my youth that I had to unbutton and could approach the Bible in a very “virgin-ous” manner – which I have appreciated. And lots more…

    BTW – I recommend increasing your intake of “martinis” (try a Boulevardier sometime – just for fun) and decreasing those foul leaves of Satan…:-)

  17. Avatar
    Eric  October 23, 2017

    Maybe the analogy works better in reverse, converting from a Marxist economist in a Soviet environment to a free-marketer, since in such a setting Marxism was more full-life (for some true believers).

    Most free-marketers probably don’t consider their economics a “belief”, it just “is,” with or without Adam Smith.

  18. Avatar
    Skepticalone  October 23, 2017

    Hello Dr. Ehrman,
    Regarding your early experience and subsequent “deconversion” , is there any experiential evidence you have that you were ever converted as compared with a first century christian . I mean was there a cost to following the truth ? I am aware of your zeal ….How do you know that the group with whom you followed were in fact ” in the faith” verses a group of people following a tradition which has come to be called “faith ” ? Just from a point of reason , it seems that anyone who has been “enlightened” would understand that Christ never came to build buildings or that Christianity would become a vital part of the world economy . For the sake of truth , would it not be better to say ” I may not have ever been a follower of Christ but rather a Baptist . ” ? ( For example , to take your love of debate and exercise its rewards through religion may indicate that you still possessed the same drive but just fulfilled it through Christianity……much the same way that many secular musicians got converted and now have adoring christian fans .

    • Bart
      Bart  October 23, 2017

      We certainly imagined there was a “cost,” but in fact, there was mainly a great deal of “benefit”

  19. Avatar
    Hume  October 23, 2017

    Is morality relative or not? I struggle with this. For instance, the treatment of women should not be relative. But killing is relative – if an army invades your country etc.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 24, 2017

      History has shown that different cultures have different moral values and principles, and that anyone who insists on absolute morals probably does so for a reason (meaning that the person is influenced by other things, making his / her judgment relative!)

      • Avatar
        godspell  October 24, 2017

        Different cultures have different moral emphases. However, the Golden Rule, to name one example has appeared in many different cultures. Also, it would be wrong to say any culture, anywhere, ever, has always been in complete agreement within itself about morality.

        There are certain things universal to all humans–otherwise we wouldn’t all be humans. Religion, in any event, is more than a system of morality. And morality can exist independently of religion, as I know you’d agree. However, absolute systems of morality are, in some ways, more likely in a purely secular atheistic system, which must, by definition, impose its morals on the individual directly.

        Freedom of conscience is easy to say, tough to live by. But without it, there can be no morality of any kind.

        And that is not relative. That is a simple statement of fact. If you are only doing what your religion or society tells you is right from fear of punishment or censure, you are not being moral.

        Morality is Huck Finn saying “All right, I’ll go to hell.” Not that you’d ever persuade Huck of that.

  20. Avatar
    Skepticalone  October 24, 2017

    Hypothetically speaking, if there were a man who challenged main stream Christianity today …the “saved “…. God’s chosen people and the words he spoke basically destroyed the foundation of their traditional beliefs and practices ..destroyed their pride and the whole eco-system of religion and required them to do love and truth instead ; considering it would wreck havoc on the economy , who would be the first to crucify the truth …the established religion or would it be the government which also has an interest in the status quo? It makes me think of the quote , Is it not better for one man to perish than the whole nation ? Would wall street react to the abolishment of “Christmas ? How the financial industry respond to ” store not up treasures ” ? Would this be a popular man ?

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