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What I Came To Believe About the Bible

It is a little difficult for me to describe what I believed after I gave up on my view that the Bible was the inerrant revelation from God with no mistakes in it whatsoever.  In part that is because there was a long transition period, and over time my beliefs evolved as I studied more, talked with friends and colleagues more, encountered more ideas, thought more.

I was in the perfect situation for this kind of study and reflection.  I was already a PhD student at Princeton Theological Seminary and I was literally surrounded by people who spent most of their days, every day, reading, studying, talking, and thinking about the Christian faith from both a personal and an academic perspective.  I spent every day for lunch with people doing research and thinking about the Christian faith.  Every day I read significant books and articles on everything having to do with ancient Christianity.  Every day I had conversations about religious topics – mainly about the academic study of the New Testament and early Christianity, but also about personal faith issues.  This went on for years.  From the time I started Princeton Seminary to the time I finished it was seven years altogether.  Seven years of this.

I know now that this was an extraordinarily unusual experience.  Most people of course have nothing like it.  And for me,

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Update on my Publication Plans
What Really Happened to Me: Demythologizing the New Testament

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Comments

  1. RonaldTaska  June 6, 2017

    1, A terrific series of posts. Keep going!

    2. I have heard it said this way many times: “Isn’t it wonderful that God chose to reveal Himself through the flawed work of flawed humans?” I don’t know how wonderful that is. It would have helped to have more clarity.

    3. I know that the authors of Matthew and Luke used the Gospel of Mark as a starting point, but considering the effects of oral transmission over decades before the writing of the Gospels, as you have so capably described in “Jesus Before the Gospels,” that the Gospels are as similar as they are impresses me. Considering the oral transmission process one might expect even more contradictions and historical discrepancies.

  2. Carl  June 6, 2017

    Do you think that Paul, upon conversion, may have had a similar paradigm shift in how he viewed the old testament? i.e- 1 Corinthians 9:9. And that he only referenced/delivered relevant scripture in a way that would not offend possible converts? or was he still of the belief that all of the old testament was infallible? cheers

    • Bart
      Bart  June 7, 2017

      I doubt if he would have admitted that there was anything wrong with the Hebrew Bible.

    • llamensdor  June 14, 2017

      Paul never “converted.” This is a common but utterly unsupportable belief.

  3. TBeard  June 6, 2017

    I wonder if any Christians realize or researched that Judaism adopted their deities from the ancient Canaanite religion where El was their chief god and Asherah,the Queen of Heaven, was his consort and mother of his 70 sons? Supposedly, Yahweh was one of his sons and a deity in their religion as well, but wasn’t worshiped. El Shaddai was one of their deities as well.
    This information can easily be found by googling the Ugaritic texts. Yahweh and Asherah took on different characters in the Old Testament. El was the god of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Yahweh was the god of Moses.

    Polytheism was the common practice in Israel until the Babylonian Exile. It’s claimed that the Hebrew writers combined the characteristics of the Canaanite deities into Yahweh to promote monotheism. Asherah was still worshiped until 300 BC and her image was found in the Temple of Solomon.

    What are your thoughts on this?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 7, 2017

      I don’t think this became (widely) known until the nineteenth century. Certainly the ancients didn’t think this way about it.

  4. jhague  June 6, 2017

    “Most Christian people throughout history and still today were and are not fundamentalists for whom the Bible is the one source of authority for all things without any mistakes of any kind.”

    I mainly have experience with Christian churches that want to be known as progressive and open-minded to change. These churches generally call themselves community churches. Saddleback and Willow Creek are a couple of the largest in the US. All of these community churches that I have looked into have a similar belief as follows listed on their websites:

    “We believe that the Bible, composed of the sixty-six books of the Old and New Testament, is the inspired word of God. The Bible is the full and final authority on all matters of faith and practice; there are no other writings similarly inspired by God. The Bible’s truth is timeless and speaks to our everyday lives.”

    I don’t think most of these community churches would call themselves fundamentalist and there are certainly many passages in the Bible that these churches view as “cultural issues” during the first century. But then they pick and choose other passages and say they are binding to people today. I have three questions:

    1. Do you view these community churches as fundamentalist?
    2. Isn’t this type of teaching happening in community churches across the country somewhat harmful as this is the only message that most church-goers hear?
    3. If these community churches are fundamentalists (or nearly), who are the “Most Christian people still today are not fundamentalists” that you mention?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 7, 2017

      No, I don’t think that statement of faith is fundamentalist. It simply affirms that the Bible is inspired, not that it is without error in its every statement.

      • jhague  June 7, 2017

        The churches that I am referring to do primarily teach that the Bible is the inerrant Word of God, the earth was created in six days, there was an exodus, Jesus was born a virgin birth, all the miracles in the Bible occurred as written and there are no discrepancies in the Bible.
        Here’s another state from a very large influential church:
        “The sole basis of our belief is the Bible—the 66 books of the Old and New Testaments. We believe Scripture in its entirety originated with God and He revealed it to chosen authors. Scripture speaks with the authority of God while simultaneously reflecting the backgrounds, styles, and vocabularies of these human authors. We hold that the Scriptures, in their original manuscripts, are infallible and inerrant; they are the unique, full, and final authority on all matters of faith and practice. There are no other writings similarly inspired by God.”

        I know they cover themselves by saying “in their original manuscripts” but the average church attender will not notice that statement or know what it means.
        And more importantly, the message from the pastors is that the Bible is from God and is without error and everything happened as stated.

        When you said that “Most Christian people still today are not fundamentalists” does that refer to average church goers who attends a church that has leaders that say the Bible is without error and that everything happened as the Bible states but the church goers do not actually believe that?

        • Bart
          Bart  June 8, 2017

          Yes, the statement here *is* fundamentalist. But I don’t think the other one you mentioned was. (Saying that the Bible is the only totally reliable guide to faith and practice is very different from saying there are no errors of any kind in it)

          • jhague  June 9, 2017

            The point I am trying to make is that I think the dominant message that many/most (?) Christians in the US are hearing is a fundamentalist message. The average church goer may not be fundamentalist but that is what they are exposed to at church. Many churches are leaving denominational memberships to take on the community church model. When you said that “Most Christian people still today are not fundamentalists” does that refer to average church goers who attends a church that has leaders that say the Bible is without error and that everything happened as the Bible states but the church goers do not actually believe that?

          • Bart
            Bart  June 10, 2017

            Most churches do *not* have pastors who say that Bible is without error. By far.

          • jhague  June 10, 2017

            Have you had much exposure to the community style churches? I find that the message generally indicates without error even if not stated. And the members that I know definitely believe that is what they are hearing.

          • Bart
            Bart  June 11, 2017

            Yes, my sense is that many of these are conservative evangelical.

          • jhague  June 12, 2017

            What do you find to be the main differences with conservative evangelicals and conservative evangelical fundamentalists?

          • Bart
            Bart  June 12, 2017

            By definition “fundamentalists” are “no fun, too much damn, and not enough mental.” (OK, seriously, it is a matter of degree: how insistent are they that they and their views alone are right; how much do they insist that every single word of the Bible is completely without error; how vehement and forceful are they; etc.)

  5. talmoore
    talmoore  June 6, 2017

    I’ve been an atheist for the majority of my life now — since I was a teenager until now, more than 30 years — so your journey, Dr. Ehrman, of gradual de-fundamentalization is something I can’t quite relate to. But one thing I do understand is the uncomfortable feeling of realizing when I’ve been wrong about something. The first thing that comes to my mind is when I was in college, and I was reading the type of self-affirming nonsense than young people are wont to read, like Ayn Rand, and I got sucked into the world of libertarianism and so-called “rational self-interest”.

    Of course, when you’re an idealistic, ignorant young man, all that stuff which justifies feeding your ego can be quite attractive. Fortunately, as I got older, better educated, gained more experienced in life, I came to the realization that such a worldview is not only wrong, but it can be quite toxic as well. I actually came to feel kind of embarrassed of being taken in by it. I felt like I should have known better. But the reality is that until I had the necessary knowledge and experiences, there was no way for me to know better.

    Did you at any point feel embarrassed or uncomfortable about your previous beliefs?

  6. godspell  June 6, 2017

    I am moved to wonder–is there anything–any work of literature at all, any form of human expression, anything we find significance in–that can’t be over-analyzed to the point where the analyst is no longer able to experience it in an unfiltered spontaneous way?

    You can overthink literally anything, including love, human relationships.

    Over-familiarity doesn’t necessarily breed contempt, but it can certainly breed ennui. You look at any assortment of words long enough, they’re just words. You still know their meaning, but you don’t feel it anymore.

    How if the salt shall lose its savor?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 7, 2017

      Yes indeed!

    • James Chalmers  June 7, 2017

      Over analyzed or over experienced? Can one tire of even Beethoven’s Ninth? Well, maybe not, if one learned new ways to analyze it.

  7. hasankhan  June 6, 2017

    Sending the whole Bible as a book from sky would have the following outcome

    Qur’an (6:7) And even if We had sent down to you, [O Muhammad], a written scripture on a page and they touched it with their hands, the disbelievers would say, “This is not but obvious magic.”

  8. probablynot  June 6, 2017

    The Bible isn’t a pile of gems; it’s a pile of all different kinds of rocks, including some gems. Our job is to mine out the gems. Hmm. I can see how that could be a fun or exciting way to look at it, especially for people who enjoy brain teaser-type games (hate to say “nerds” but…). A puzzle, for some people, is more fun than being given the answer straight out. And the Bible is the ultimate puzzle, because the answers (what are the REAL gems and what are the REAL rocks?) are NEVER revealed, so the debate can rage on and on. Kind of like debating the meaning of the TV show “Lost.”

    “If the author of John took a liberty when he said Jesus was born on the day of preparation for Passover in order to show that Jesus was the lamb of God, then did that author also take a liberty in saying that Jesus is the lamb of God?” Great question! Let’s bat it around and see what we come up with! “And if the author of Genesis took a liberty in saying sin started with an actual person named Adam, then did Paul take a liberty in saying sin ends with an actual person named Jesus?” Great puzzle! Isn’t this fun!!

    Maybe for some people. Maybe not for others. More than that: Reading the Bible, under that view, is exactly like reading ANY OTHER BOOK. We mine it for what WE deem good, for what WE deem to be gems (using our super-sleuth powers). Basically, we feel affirmed when the book says something we agree with, we feel challenged and motivated when its advice strikes as potentially helpful, and we throw away whatever seems unhelpful or irrelevant.

    Fair enough. What I can’t figure out is this. How could people who hold this view ALSO maintain that the Bible is special? Doesn’t it seem like the common denominator among Christians is that they all think the Bible is somehow “special”? So what’s special about it, if it’s a pile of rocks and gems like all other books?

    To state my question more directly: When you held this view of the Bible and were still a Christian, Bart, in what way would you have said the Bible was more special than the Bhagavad Gita or Aurelius’s Meditations? And how would you have backed that up?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 7, 2017

      I loved the Meditations, but I thought the Bible was the venue through which God spoke the *most*.

  9. probablynot  June 6, 2017

    Posting this to get notifications of future comments on this thread.

  10. Pegill7  June 6, 2017

    Bart,

    You may not want to express a political viewpoint but when I read that 81% of Evangelical voted for Trump as did a larger percentage of very devout Catholics as well, all I can offer as a way of explanation for this is the hope that they have for the revocation of Roe v. Wade. How else could a man who represents the antithesis of what a Christian should be have hoodwinked so many millions to vote for him? That fact alone leads me to say, “If that is what being a Christian is all about, I’m glad I am not one of them!”

  11. cheito
    cheito  June 6, 2017

    DR Ehrman:

    Your Comment:

    Yes, God inspired them in what they wrote, in some way. But in what way? He obviously hadn’t dictated to them every word. If he had done that, well, there would have been no reason for him to use them at all. He could have simply dropped a divine manuscript from the sky, written by his own hand, and said, “Here’s your Bible!”

    My Comment:

    I believe that The lord did exactly what you’re saying he didn’t do.

    Of course I don’t believe he spoke to Matthew, Mark and Luke. These men were writing from their own inspiration. The Lord didn’t appear to them. They had their own reasons for writing what they wrote.

    However, I do believe that the the Lord did reveal Himself to Moses, Jeremiah and Ezekiel to name a few.

    According to Jeremiah, The Lord spoke to him every word he wanted him to say. That’s what Jeremiah means when he says, “The word of the lord came to me, saying”…

    So the word of the Lord spoke to Jeremiah. Who was this word of the lord?

    God also personally appointed Jeremiah a prophet to the nations. The Lord revealed Himself to Jeremiah and had a specific work for him to accomplish. This is clear in the very first chapter of Jeremiah 1:1-19.
    ____________________________

    The same is true for Ezekiel. Ezekiel heard the voice of the Lord speaking to him.

    Ezekiel 2:1-3

    1-Then He said to me, “Son of man, stand on your feet that I may speak with you!”

    2-And as He spoke to me the Spirit entered me and set me on my feet; and I heard Him speaking to me.

    3-Then He said to me, “Son of man, I am sending you to the sons of Israel, to a rebellious people who have rebelled against Me; they and their fathers have transgressed against Me to this very day.
    __________________________

    And of course there was Moses. The Lord did speak the ten commandments, and all the Israelites and the others among them heard the voice of God speaking.

    Then the Lord wrote the Ten Commandments on tablets of stone with his own hand.

    ______________________________

    I think all the confusion has been caused, by all the persons who have written in the name of the Lord, (such as the author’s of Mark, Matthew, Luke, Revelation, Hebrews, and many others), when the lord had not spoken to them, nor sent them.

    These men spoke in the name of the Lord without seeing Him nor hearing from him. They are false prophets and teachers, writing from their own inspiration according to their own agenda.

    The result is that we have all these manuscripts, supposedly inspired by God, intermingled with the true words inspired by God, and literally spoken by the Lord to his servants, the true and genuine Apostles and Prophets, whom the Lord really commissioned and sent to be his spokesmen such as the Apostle Paul.

    _____________

    • tompicard
      tompicard  June 7, 2017

      cheito,

      Shouldn’t your criticism of “the author[’]s of Mark, Matthew, Luke, Revelation, Hebrews, and many others”, rather be toward those persons who set the canon of the bible?

      with 20-20 hindsight, you appear to have very clear idea of which books should have been included and which should have been excluded from our current Bible. Which criterion do you believe were wrongly employed in determining the canon?

      • cheito
        cheito  June 9, 2017

        tompicard:

        I don’t think the problem was the criterion they chose to decide which books should be accepted as inspired by God. They should’ve followed their criterion. They erred in believing that John was the author of Revelation and they were wrong about the synoptic Gospels, Hebrews and other books they included in their canon. The authors of these books were not Apostles, nor the companions of the Eyewitnesses.

        I have not studied in detail exactly which church father’s accepted or rejected the book of Revelation but I understand that not every church father agreed that Revelation should be included in the canon. So there was not a consensus.

        I also understand that books were added and subtracted from the earliest canons until finally we have the Protestant canon, the Catholic canon, And others.

        I’m not a scholar, so please correct me if I’m wrong about what I think i understand.

      • llamensdor  June 14, 2017

        At first I intended to write that I was impressed by your overwhelming wisdom and that you are able to decide whom God really spoke to, and whom he didn’t. But your second posting indicates that you are really an humble searcher, still trying to find the truth. If you stay with Dr. Ehrman for a while, I believe the search will become easier for you, and you will realize that we are all–including the writers of all the books of Jewish and Christian scripture (not to mention Dr. Ehrman)–still searchers and destined always to be searchers. Certainty seems desirable, but in some areas, it is simply not available, and we should not blame ourselves, or others, if we or they are not able to pin things down forever and a day. That shouldn’t stop us from being personally honest and decent people and charitable to others.

  12. Jason  June 6, 2017

    Looking back at the path you’ve taken from evangelical to atheist, do you now identify moments or turning points that, as they say, “had the butterfly fluttered its wings in the other direction,” you might be telling us quite a different story?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 7, 2017

      Absolutely. I may well have remained a fundamentalist!

      • Jason  June 7, 2017

        Well I’m glad this is the reality we live in. This version of Bart Ehrman has been a very rewarding one to the richness of my life experience.

  13. Judith  June 6, 2017

    When we finally get to read what we’ve been hanging on to find out, you never disappoint! It’s always really good.and worth waiting for.

  14. catguy  June 6, 2017

    Dr. Ehrman, I think it is interesting to contrast yourself as someone who studied in-depth the Bible for many years to that of most self-professing Christians who may never open their Bibles. If I did a survey in my church of maybe 200 people I would be surprised if 10% read the Bible daily and maybe another 15 or 20% occasionally. Usually around Easter and Christmas and maybe Mother’s Day. Christians love Mother’s Day. And I am being generous when I say of those 10% that they read their Bibles with an open inquiring mind. I think many of them simply love to pour over the scriptures they have loved all their lives more as rote memory than of investigation. So this begs the question that if these 200 souls in my church were to spend even 2 or 3 years of intense academic study of their Bibles what they would then believe. Would they change their religious views? Would they question cherished beliefs? It is easy to attend church on auto-pilot and let the pastor or priest deliver the sermon and meditate on it for a short time. I find it somewhat embarrassing that when our pastor will ask members in the congregation to compare last week’s sermon with the current one, few even remember what he talked about last week. These aren’t “bad” people but it is just how they come to believe as they do. Largely their particular Christianity is what they were taught when they were young. Others are church-shopping, always looking for that special emotion or feeling. I do not find most church-shoppers read their Bibles much. They want it all to come from their pastor. And even pastors who have attended 4 years of seminary or perhaps a Bible College will have a particular religious mind-set. A Presbyterian seminary will have certain fundamental beliefs that color their interpretation of the Bible. Ditto for Lutherans and even with Lutheran theology their are different synods. And so it goes. What you have accomplished in all your years of study is remarkable and we are all richer for it. Thank you for your dedication to your years of Bible study.

  15. tompicard
    tompicard  June 7, 2017

    Dr. Ehrman,

    When and/or who do you think morphed the original concept of the Messianic Kingdom to the concept of the Kingdom of God that you believe Jesus was proclaiming as imminent?

    I believe the older concept of the Messianic Kingdom was a sovereignty of peace, and prosperity (see Isaiah 2:4), yet likely absent any non-natural elements; like it didn’t include people living on earth free from death and all diseases. As in the time of Solomon, where there was period of lasting peace and where people from all over the known world came to the anointed King to receive God’s guidance. Where these same characteristics were expected to continue not by the rule of an immortal king, but from one generation to the next through the guidance of first king and then his descendants.

    Your concept of Jesus’ teaching about the Kingdom of God (which I don’t agree with, but that is a different question) includes the above elements, worldwide peace and nations coming to the soverign to learn and receive God’s guidance, but added to this is a kingdom without any disease and without physical death.

    Do you believe it was Jesus himself who changed the earlier, somewhat more believable type of Kingdom of God, to the more supernatural-magical “Kingdom of God”?
    Or maybe one of his predecessors?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 8, 2017

      I think it happened with the advent of Jewish apocalyptic thought, which arose about two centuries before Jesus’ pubic ministry.

  16. Jana  June 8, 2017

    As an aside, I thought maybe you would enjoy reading “Why Atheists are more Intelligent than Religious People” 🙂 https://www.yahoo.com/news/why-atheists-generally-smarter-religious-123200913.html

    • Bart
      Bart  June 8, 2017

      I guess that means I’ve gotten smarter as I’ve grown older!

    • dragonfly  June 10, 2017

      If you go by the comments on that article, I’d say it doesn’t matter whether you’re atheist or religious- we’re all stupid!

  17. gwayersdds  June 8, 2017

    I have a question. Since the New testament has been shown to have many inaccuracies, what about the Hebrew bible? To what degree is it nothing more than myth? Do we really have ten commandments or could there have been more or less but some got added (or deleted) as time went by? How accurate are the history parts? Was there a prophet named Ezekiel or Elijah or Jeremiah etc. etc.? Did David exist, or Solomon? To what degree do you think the Hebrew bible is accurate?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 8, 2017

      Yes, the Hebrew Bible is chock full of contradictions, historical mistakes, anachronisms, and, well, problems of all kinds. But what a fantastic set of books it is, nonetheless!

      • llamensdor  June 14, 2017

        I’ve raised this issue with you before. I believe the writers, compilers, whatever, of Hebrew scripture were well aware of the contradictions in their work. They knew their assessments could not be eternal, but they wanted all the ideas they considered plausible and significant to be put before the people for analysis and decision. They were struggling to understand the world as they found it, and they included a variety of thoughts, descriptions, etc., because they knew they did not have perfect answers. This is illustrated further by Mishna, Gemara, the Talmuds, where conflicting ideas by various sages are presented, often as dialogues and/or debates. This indeed is the manner of education in Orthodox Jewish Yeshivas today, and that is why some authors suggest that these students are better prepared for the critical thinking that will be necessary for them in the “real” world than many in elite schools who are given material as if it were (un)holy scripture. Do you believe there is merit to these ideas?

        • Bart
          Bart  June 14, 2017

          I think the hardest thing to do with ancient authors is to realize just how difficult it is to get into their skins and establish their “intentions.” We can’t even do that with modern authors! So at the end of the day, we don’t really have access to what they “wanted” only to what they “wrote.”

  18. Jana  June 9, 2017

    Thank you Dr. Ehrman. Your humility and honesty in revealing your very intimate search and discoveries .. inspiring.

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