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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
    jdh5879  October 24, 2017

    I believe you have said that in the past you spoke in tongues. Would you share your thoughts on that experience now?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 25, 2017

      Well, briefly, I think it was all psychologically induced, driven by a need to find a special spiritual experience that would manifest the “supernatural” in my life.

      • Avatar
        GregLogan  October 25, 2017


        If you spoke in tongues – as I did for 3 – 4 years after “receiving the baptism of the Holy Spirit” – I can provide a slightly more developed cause.

        Based on my study of linguistics (such as it was) related to my obtaining a Masters in Teaching English in a Second Language – and my observation of linguistic phenomenon occurring in my own brain/speech while on an extended stay to China – I am positing that the language facility in human beings is HIGHLY developed (as evidenced by the hundreds of human languages with VERY significant phonal distinctions). Therefore, I posit that ANYONE can simply open their mouth – essentially release their brain and begin to utter speech sounds of all sorts in all sorts of patterns – that is, “speak in tongues”. Our brain is definitely wired for speech sound production (maybe not unlike the barks of a dog or shrieks of a chimp??) – and it is only with “connections” that those sounds are attached to semantics (meaning).

        I would even posit that Paul was unknowningly addressing some of this phenomenon in Corinthians.

        Something like that….

        Does that seem to make sense?


  2. Avatar
    Durkan23  October 24, 2017

    Great post Bart. I’m interested to know if you still personally hold Jesus as a great moral role model and someone from history to be revered and respected or do you believe we know too little about the Historical Jesus to be able to count him as someone to look up to? Thanks

    • Bart
      Bart  October 25, 2017

      I think the emphasis on love and care for the needy still resonates deeply today.

  3. DestinationReign
    DestinationReign  October 25, 2017

    There is a very interesting concept involved with this. How it plays out for any given individual is largely relegated to a matter of choice. It begins with an understanding of how to see patterns, or templates (of “intelligent design”), within Scripture. And it culminates with an ability to integrate such patterns into one’s own Truth-quest. (To understand Biblical narratives as prophetic “living parables” is a crucial element to all of this.)

    As we know, the 2,000-year Church Age has been a time of darkness in which no man could work (John 9:4-5). The light of the world left and darkness fell. With the baseline belief that “Christ will return someday” (in whatever capacity that may be), we have one version of this “template,” as seen here:

    Light in the world > Age of darkness > Light returns in power

    We also see this with:

    Seed planted > Dormancy > Seed blossoms to life

    Jesus came as the Passover Lamb – the seed falling to the earth and dying (John 12:24). This was followed by an interruption of darkness and desolation. And the hope is for a triumphant return in finality. This is the same template as the journey of the sons of Israel:

    Passover sacrifice to free from bondage > Death in the wilderness > Entry into Promised Land

    And again, this was also exemplified through the rather strange birthing process of Zerah (light) and Perez (breach).

    Partial light > Breach > Full light

    We also have the parable of the prodigal son (and other parables) that fit this same recurring theme:

    Son “breaks free” of home life > Son endures certain experiences away from home > Son returns to joyous acclaim

    The time of “wandering in the wilderness” represents the necessary time of SELF-INTROSPECTION, the Truth-quest that must be carried out in order to evolve in understanding of not only the Bible, but higher spiritual Truth in general. Very importantly – this is not something that can be done while remaining in the complacency of a religious mindset! One must “stray from home,” so to speak – alone – AFTER coming to initial belief. After “becoming a Christian.” A wilderness journey is necessary AFTER accepting the sacrifice of the Passover Lamb, in order to come into a higher relationship with Truth and ultimately enter the Promised Land.

    This is where Christianity, an empire of SPIRITUAL STAGNANCY, fails miserably. According to the mainstream Christian belief structure, accepting the Passover sacrifice, being covered in the blood of the Lamb, is all that is necessary to gain a heavenly inheritance in the Kingdom. But the truth is that is only the FIRST STEP of a trying trek to the Promised Land. One must be willing to then venture into the wilderness, even “fall away,” in order to evolve personal spiritual knowledge and knowledge of SELF; all of this before choosing to return home with that evolved understanding – the journey of the prodigal son. But again, Christianity sees no need for this; and for 2,000 years, all Christians have “died in the wilderness” and have not entered alive into the Promised Land.

    There is ultimately a divine hand orchestrating all of this. We see this symbolized in the story of Job, and the way his own life fits the “divine template.” All was well in Job’s world until divine circumstance cast him into a position of having no choice but to do deep self-introspection. Then, at the end of it all, he came to realize that:

    “I have uttered that which I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I didn’t know.”

    And the template was then completed:

    Job complacent > Job’s time of self-introspection > Job blessed greater than before

    Job’s confession represents the necessary awakening, both individually (the microcosm) and collectively (the macrocosm) as we come to the end of the 2,000-year wilderness age and prepare to enter the Promised Land ALIVE. The willingness to forsake misconceptions of higher Truth. For 2,000 years, wayward Christianity has not understood what has been happening in the grand plan, has not realized that it has been blind, and has “uttered that which it did not understand.” It has preached a Kingdom of which it has had no understanding.

    As for individual applications, the more introspection and genuine Truth-seeking that one has done during the “wilderness” time, the greater the potential for true glory in the coming Kingdom! The pursuit of knowledge will be greatly rewarded and put to great use. What was sown will be reaped, but only if one is willing to accept it. If the prodigal son had not decided to return home, there could have been no joyous celebration.

    This is Truth that has been cloaked for 2,000 years (and even from the beginning), which is being unveiled at this appointed time of awakening. What has been sealed is being unsealed – the higher meaning of Scripture not only in regards to the grand collective experience, but the personalized individual experience. Truth that cuts directly to the core of one’s own being.

    This is, in fact, a most remarkable time to be present on the earth!

    • Avatar
      Skepticalone  October 29, 2017

      Yes and it is individually experiential provided one understands that they have to go out in the wilderness and unlearn doctrines and relearn ( or learn truth ) which is different than theology and is always personal . Paul had to unlearn Judiasm in Arabia . It is interesting to me that I meet for example former Catholic’s who grow discontent with the emptiness of rituals administered by leaders and then convert to a form a protestantism . ( Non denominational , Baptist , Methodist , etc. ) but then get trapped into another form of worship which gives them “assurance of salvation” provided they ” play the game ” ..i.e ..bring in money , attend services , sing in the choir etc.
      Whereas we are indeed in an interesting time , we are also in a most dangerous time as most “believers” in the US anyway have faith in the economy , their careers , a political party , and pursue their own dreams while their very own children have been abandoned/sacrificed to the world. Heatbreaking and totally not seen nor understood. See Psalms 16:37

      • DestinationReign
        DestinationReign  November 9, 2017


        Apologies for the delayed reply. Those are important and worthy points. The very state of Christianity is validation in itself that Scriptural narratives are now coming alive as LIVING PROPHECY, more so than “historical facts.”

        The fact is, all of Christ’s “passion” afflictions foreshadowed what would transpire with His own Church – the “Body of Christ,” Christianity.

        Christianity is fractured into tens of thousands of disagreeing and even embattled denominations, all putting forth conflicting “truths.” This is not to mention the countless scandals and atrocities carried out by the Christian Church over the centuries. This confounds the world, and makes Christ’s true higher image marred and unrecognizable (Isaiah 52:14).

        In John 9:4-5, Christ Himself prophesied that darkness (“night”) would envelop the world after His departure. Hence, for the last 2,000 years, there has been no light to enable Truth, and Christianity has most obviously succumbed to that darkness and blindness. In that passage, He also said that no one would be able to WORK during the night. The Body of Christ’s inability to work is symbolized by Christ’s own crucifixion under darkness (Mat. 27:45-46). Crucifixion is the inability to move, or to “work.” Christianity has been (unknowingly) incapable of sharing genuine Kingdom Truth to the world.

        As you point out in your second paragraph, the Body of Christ has its collective focus on the cares of this world/age, represented by the THORNS (Mark 4:18-19). This of course is symbolized by the crown of thorns being placed on Jesus’ head.

        For 2,000 years, the Body of Christ has been prophesying BLINDLY. (How many failed predictions of Jesus’ return have we seen over the centuries?) This is symbolized in Jesus being blindfolded and told to “prophesy” (Mark 14:65).

        These are higher Biblical truths that have not been knowable throughout the history of the Bible’s very existence. But we are now transitioning into the third millennium; the dawn of the “third day,” as the night is ending. It is now time for those who hope to take part in the Kingdom to awaken from the 2,000-year entombing slumber that has occurred during that night. The stone is being rolled away from the opening of the tomb, allowing the first rays of light to shine through. Some will heed the call to awaken and come out of the tomb; others will choose to remain asleep.

        …”lest coming suddenly he might find you sleeping.” (Mark 13:36)

        • Avatar
          GregLogan  November 12, 2017

          re “higher Biblical truths”

          Well, to be honest – what I heard a lot was simply human textual allegorizing….


  4. Avatar
    Oikonomos  October 25, 2017

    Dr. Ehrman, how much of that Bible memorization stuck with you through the years? Do you still find yourself able to recite huge chunks or even chapters from memory? May be even a smaller letter like Philemon? I would imagine that kind of knowledge has helped you on the fly in tests and debates over the years. . .

    Also, did Moody have a standard version of the Bible you were supposed to use, presumably something from a conservative evangelical translation committee like the NIV? If not, I would assume your go-to Bible for day-to-day devotions and (likely) study during your fundamentalist years was probably a translation favored by fundamentalists. Did you start to rely more on other scholarly translations that were not necessarily the sacred cows of fundamentalism as you became a liberal Christian? The differences across translations are often overstated by certain fundamentalists; nevertheless, it’s easy to spot evangelical influence in passages like Isaiah 7:14, or policies regarding the use of “gender neutral” language in the NT. Did you ever see anything in other versions that influenced your shift into liberal Christianity, or were you fluent enough in Greek by that point that you rarely reached for a translation?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 27, 2017

      Yes, I can still recite portions that I memorized back then. But then again, I teach this stuff all the time! I would have to brush up to recite an entire book.

  5. dschmidt01
    dschmidt01  October 27, 2017

    Dr. Ehrman, The $25 I paid to join was a pretty good investment. I’ve learned so much in a little time. I would have loved to have taken your classes in college …. but I’m 55 years old so you would have been the youngest professor since Jesus taught at the temple. Also thanks for sharing your personal experiences and I think you have a great sense of humor.

  6. Avatar
    prestonp  June 19, 2018

    Fascinating how we substitute codes for the real McCoy, saying what we hope others will hear without suffering the indignity of expressing to ourselves and others the true events that moved/shaped our lives. For example, “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…” Bart

    IOW, something like this: When Jesus came into my life, everything changed. I began to sense that the bible consists of words that are truly alive. It is a living book. The God of the universe actually communicated with me personally through the words written down and spoken thousands of years ago. I heard His voice. From the inside He changed everything about me and became my model of self-giving love.

  7. Avatar
    prestonp  June 19, 2018

    “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…” Bart

    Isn’t the “it” Jesus?

    “(my views of women as a fundamentalist are not something I’m proud of)” Bart

    That surprises me. My “views” went from aggressive lust to seeing women as human beings.

  8. Avatar
    prestonp  June 20, 2018

    “But very rarely is it the kind of hard-core fanatical fundamentalism that I was into.”

    But Bart, you just loved the Lord. Is that fanatical? Finding in Him your hero was hard-core religiosity? I am confused. You didn’t dedicate your life to ideas/concepts that were written down on paper? Something moved in you, didn’t it, a presence, not just a philosophy or words?

    I don’t want to be a pain in the butt. I just don’t get it. You are too smart to have been born from above, knowing you met GOD, to reject this One who loves you so, because of suffering.

    • Avatar
      prestonp  June 20, 2018

      I am not minimizing suffering. What’s weird is how having God in my life has made me more sensitive to the pain of others, which leads me to believe He cares deeply about human suffering. Because I love Him, I want to, I try to, and I do, spread a bit of healing and mercy, forgiveness, kindness and concern for others. Just like you Bart, when He became your model of self giving love! Bart, that is not a coincidence–that He touches people’s lives like that, all over the place. It can’t be. Science and logic and research are very, very important, but they can’t explain or fill you with love for your wife and kids and grandkids. But your love is real. When you describe what He did for you, I know exactly what you mean. Completely. That’s what He does, Bart. Forgive me, but I Know it is not just another “other worldly” phenomenon. He transforms us, millions and millions of us just like he made you a new creature in Him. He put love in my heart and continues to do so that I cannot manufacture for all the money inn the world.

      Many if not most of the discrepancies and differences can be explained. The N.T. was never designed/intended/inspired to be just a another book.

    • Bart
      Bart  June 21, 2018

      Yes, it certainly *can* be fanatical.

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