I’ve received an intriguing question about professors of religious studies and the relationship between what we teach and personal religious beliefs.



Dr. Ehrman, do your colleagues who have strong religious beliefs sometimes get conflicted when teaching some aspects of early Christianity?



Now that’s a very interesting question, and to unpack it, and give a response, I need to provide a bit of background of what (I assume) lies behind it.  I’ll start with my personal situation then broaden out from there.

Neither of my two teaching positions has been in a religious or denominational school;  Rutgers and now UNC Chapel Hill are, of course, research universities.   Both institutions are not only secular but also state-supported.  Because of the constitutional separation of church and state, people in my position are not allowed to proselytize or promote one particular religion or religious view over another. And yet we are teaching religion.  How is that supposed to work?

In the very simplest terms, the way it works is that professors in my position teach *about* religion.  My colleagues have various kinds of expertise: some, like me, are historians and/ or experts in literature and literary theory.  Some are philologists (e.g., in ancient Semitic or Classical languages).  Some are trained as anthropologists.  Some work in philosophy, cultural studies and/or critical theory.  And so on.  What holds us together is not our methodological approaches but our subject matter.  And so an expert in Akkadian, another in Hellenistic philosophy, another in Christianity in 16th century Spain, another on village life in modern Tibet, and another on race in America are all in the same department, teaching what they do from the angle they teach it.  But all of us focus on the religious histories, writings, beliefs, practices, traditions, cultures of these times and places.

I just happen to be an expert on Christianity in the first three centuries of the Roman empire.  And so I teach everything from Jesus and the New Testament up to the time of the emperor Constantine.

So the issue the questioner is asking is this: if we are not allowed to teach our religious beliefs, what happens when what we have to teach actually runs counter to our beliefs?

The short answer, I guess, is that I’ve never known that to happen, at least in my context.

Let me preface the longer answer with a little factoid that will strike many readers as very odd and virtually unbelievable.  But it nonetheless is true.  In my thirty-six years of university teaching, I have never, ever had a discussion with a colleague about their personal religious beliefs.  Not once.

In many instances, I have no way of knowing what a colleague’s personal beliefs or practices.  Sometimes I do.  Sometimes I’ll know a colleague is Jewish, for example, and even that he/she is an observant Jew (keeps kosher, e.g.) (it can become obvious in some social situations).   And occasionally a colleague may say something about “my church.”

Actually, now that I think about it, I think I know the personal beliefs of only one of my colleagues from, say, the past 20 years or so, whom I know for a fact is an atheist (from off-the-cuff comments).  Other than that, I really don’t know.  Except I am certain that none of them is a Christian, Muslim, or Jewish fundamentalist.

I *suspect* that most of them are agnostic/atheist.  But I could be completely wrong.  You might be wondering why we never talk about our religious beliefs.  The surprising answer, I guess, is that our personal beliefs are completely irrelevant to anything we do professionally.   An anthropologist of religion in Japan doesn’t need to be a Buddhist;  and even if he or she is, it would have no bearing on his/her research.

As I said, we are experts in the history, writings, cultures, beliefs, practices, etc. etc. of various religions.  This is how it works at a research university.  Scholars are experts in things.  Being an expert in something doesn’t mean you practice it.  Or don’t practice it.  I have colleagues in other departments who teach Chinese economics, but they are not Marxists; or the history of mid-20th century Germany but they aren’t Nazis; or classical Greek philosophy but they aren’t Aristotelians.  Or the history of music and they aren’t in a rock and roll band.  Or criminology and they aren’t axe murderers….

So back to the question: what would happen if someone were obligated to teach something that ran contrary to their personal beliefs?  I don’t know of that happening in my context – but what about other contexts?  What if there were a Bible-believing Christian who taught in an academic context that required her to teach historical-critical approaches to the Bible that maintained the Gospels have contradictions, that Jesus did not actually do or say the things that he is said to have done, that Paul did not write all of the letters that claim to be written by him, and so forth.  What would they do?

My sense is that there are very, very few people in that situation.  Scholars who hold standard critical views about the Bible hardly ever teach in an evangelical institution; and scholars who cannot uphold the perspectives of critical scholarship because, say, of their fundamentalist views do not teach in places where they would be required to teach the opposite of what they believe.  Offhand I can’t think of anyone I know in either situation.

But I HAVE known some people close to the edge of the problem.  Most of the time they simply fudge the issue in class.  For example, they “teach both sides” of an issue: did Peter really write 2 Peter?  They answer: “Well, those who say he did say this, and those who say he did not say that.”  If pressed by a student about their view, they might say something like: “My view doesn’t matter: what matters is what *you* think  based on the evidence.”  Or something like: “You know, I personally think this, but I could see it both ways.”  Or something like that.

Interestingly enough, in my experience (which if VERY limited), just now, in this point of history, this is becoming a problem especially in conservative evangelical institutions of higher learning.  I know professors in such places, and know *of* others, who are becoming increasingly convinced by critical scholarship on the Bible, and realize, say, that there are contradictions in the Gospels or that something attributed to the life of Jesus in the New Testament did not actually happen.  How do they deal with that?  Yeah, it’s a problem.

There are a number of cases where the person lets the cat out of the bag.  They’ve come to see that their fundamentalist views are wrong, the administration gets wind of it, and they get fired.  Ugh.

But others figure out how to toe the line even as their views develop.  This is a strange phenomenon happening in some evangelical institutions.   I personally know professors in such places who will say in the same sentence: “Yes, Mark and Matthew contradict each other here” AND “Yes, the Bible is inerrant.”   Or who will say, “Yes, even though Matthew says this event happened, it did not happen,”  AND, in the next sentence, “Yes, Matthew has no mistakes in it.”

You ask: how can they say both things at once?  I ask the same thing.  In fact I have asked the same thing.  Repeatedly.  But to no avail.  Either because they can’t bring themselves to admit that an error is an error, even if it’s in the Bible; or because they are afraid they will lose their jobs and sacrifice their careers and possibly alienate their families; or because they are so befuddled by it all that they can’t see straight – I don’t know, there may be other answers.  But they come up with some kind of fuzzy argument such as “Well, if Matthew knew he was making a mistake, then it’s not really a mistake,” or some such thing.  In their view, that allows them to say boldly (in public, in front of an audience) that what “Matthew records Jesus saying here is the opposite of what he really did say” and then say “And yes, Matthew is inerrant.”   It’s as if I were to say, the square root of 16 is 5; and someone says, No, you just made a mistake,” and I reply “No it’s not a mistake, because I *know* it’s not right.  But the square root of 16 is 5.”

Go figure…..