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What Really Happened to Me: Demythologizing the New Testament

As I suggested in yesterday’s post, the reason I’ve been trying to show that biblical scholars who still revere the Bible but recognize that it is, even so, filled with mistakes, discrepancies, and contradictions is to explain what happened to my faith once I realized that the Bible was not the inerrant revelation from God that I had always assumed it was.

It is amazing how often people tell me – usually with a touch of personal complacency – that the reason I lost my faith was that I was a fundamentalist.  If I had only had a more reasonable understanding of the faith (like *them* for example!) then the problems I encountered would not have led me to become an agnostic.  In their view, I am at heart still a fundamentalist.

In their view I had thought (as a fundamentalist) that if every word in the Bible can’t be completely true and accurate, then none of it can be true and accurate, and that for that reason, once I realized there were mistakes in the Bible, my only recourse was to become a raging atheist.   In other words, they thought that I continued to have a fundamentalist view of things (it’s all or nothing when it comes to the Bible) and that I had then “thrown out the baby with the bathwater.”  If I had a nickel for every time someone has told me that (about myself) I could buy a condo in Paris.

I don’t know exactly why people are so eager to tell me why I became an atheist, while assuring me that they themselves would never, thank God, have to go that route.  But they are.  It wouldn’t be too hard, I suppose, to come up with some pretty simply psychological explanations, but I’m really more interested in this thread to talk about what really did happen to me.  And what happened is not that I went from being a fundamentalist to being an atheist overnight once I realized the Bible had mistakes.

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(As a side note, a conservative evangelical long-time colleague of mine, Craig Evans, with whom I have long been friendly and with whom I’ve had a number of public debates, once wrote a book in which he explained about me, in the opening pages, that once I realized there were differences among the manuscripts of the New Testament I decided that I could no longer be a Christian.  That is nowhere near the truth.  For one thing, I had known there were differences among the manuscripts from virtually the very moment I had become a conservative born-again Christian back in high school.  We talked about such things.  I wrote papers about the issue when I was a 19-year-old at Moody Bible Institute.  The variants of the manuscripts were part of my life from the outset of my fundamentalist faith.  But what especially annoyed me was that Craig was someone I had known for years.  Why couldn’t he just ask me about it, rather than write – in a published book, to be read by fellow conservative evangelicals – what was simply false, even if thinking it was *true* was somehow comforting to himself and to his readers, all of whom could see how simple-minded I must be to leave the faith for some such silly reason?)

The short version of the story of what really happened to me is this.   When I was a graduate student at Princeton Theological Seminary, it was still a time when most critical New Testament scholars throughout the world thought that one of the – or probably the single – most important New Testament scholar of the twentieth century was a German named Rudolph Bultmann (1884-1976).   Among Bultmann’s many, many important contributions to the study of the New Testament was a theological approach he called “demythologizing.”

The basic idea behind this approach was that the Bible is not a factual book with no mistakes, an inerrant revelation that can speak directly, without remainder, to the modern world.  It is rooted completely in its own historical context – in fact, in a wide range of contexts, since the authors of Genesis, Amos, Matthew, Paul, and Revelation (and all the others) were living in their own contexts.   For the New Testament the contexts were all connected with the first century.  So too with Jesus himself –a first-century Jew living in Palestine.  In these ancient contexts there were certain assumptions about the world, about God, about reality that informed their ways of thinking.  They accepted certain “myths” about God and reality that don’t any longer make sense in a modern scientific world.  We today have very different sets of assumptions about – well, about everything.  And so we can’t simply pretend that we live in their world, assuming what ancient people themselves assumed.

To make sense of what is really at stake in ancient writings such as those found in the Bible – if we want them to have any relevance and meaning for our lives — we have to strip them of their mythological assumptions (those held by ancients) and reconfigure them in light of our own assumptions.  When you remove the mythological underpinnings of ancient writings, you “demythologize” them.

I am not going to go deeply into Bultmann’s own way of doing this.  It involves his personal commitment to the existentialist philosophical movements of his own day in Germany, including especially those being developed by the influential philosopher Heidegger.   Even in the early 1980s, when I was first recognizing the “truth” of the demythologizing project, I did not buy into Bultmann’s own conclusions about the existential meanings of the biblical texts.  I was not particularly enamored of Heideggerian philosophy.

But I did come to see the merit of treating the stories and prose of the New Testament in a way that recognized that it was thoroughly packaged in light of first century beliefs, world views, and assumptions of the world that I, as a twentieth century person, no longer shared, but that if *retranslated* into a modern idiom continued to be deeply meaningful.

In a sense, I realized that the Bible had to be translated.  Not simply translated from the ancient Hebrew and Greek into modern English, but even more, translated into terms that made sense in my own world.  And when one did that, one could still see the power and vibrancy of the biblical message for one’s thoughts, beliefs, and life.  I’ll say a bit more about that in the next several posts.

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What I Came To Believe About the Bible
Why Have I Stopped Explaining How I Lost My Faith? Readers’ Mailbag June 4, 2017

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Comments

  1. RonaldTaska  June 5, 2017

    1. A really good series of posts.

    2. If it’s any consolation, I could buy a condo in Paris as well as I have heard this same critique directed toward me, about coming from Fundamentalism and, hence, still being a Fundamentalist, many times.

    3. Who am I to say what God should do, but it might be helpful if He/She periodically inspired updates of His/Her Word that were not so bound to ancient cultures. This would be like updating one’s Windows Programs.

  2. Pattycake1974
    Pattycake1974  June 5, 2017

    Whether it’s a book, debate, or blog posting, scholars can be flat-out mean to each other at times.

    • Pattycake1974
      Pattycake1974  June 5, 2017

      Several Christian apologists have tried to minimize scribal transmission problems with the bible. No one should lose their faith over that. I agree, but I don’t think they’re getting to the heart of the issue. It’s all the things that add up: transmission errors, contradictions, internal inconsistencies, stories put in that weren’t there in the first place, *true* stories that didn’t actually happen, books taken out, books put in, Jesus was angry–not compassionate–by the way, he probably didn’t say that. Oh, and he probably wasn’t buried after all. He was picked apart by birds–yikes! Was Jesus adopted as the Son of God or was he the angel of the Lord, preexisting like Paul thought? We’re pretty sure that’s what he thought anyway…..

      At what point is it logical for a person to lose his or her faith? Although, like you and many others on the blog, I have doubted that God exists for several reasons with the main one being extreme suffering in the world. But that doesn’t necessarily have to be the clincher for someone else.

      Maybe the reason people make the wrong conclusions is because when they think of you, they automatically think of Misquoting Jesus where you discuss your religious background. They’re getting information confused in their minds.

      I do think it’s difficult to soften the blow when writing about issues with bible when it comes from an atheist, but attempting to belittle someone publicly is pathetic and very un-Christlike behavior.

  3. godspell  June 5, 2017

    I wouldn’t say you lost your faith because you were a fundamentalist as a young man. I think, however, that you developed a certain idea of what faith was, because of that experience. You clearly do understand that truth and fact are different things–that’s one definition of faith. But not to you. Because, as one of my relatives once angrily put it, in response to Vatican II, “We used to have the truth.”

    I never thought I had the truth. So for me, faith could never mean that. You went through a transitional period, yes. Where you tried to have it both ways, and it didn’t work for you.

    But you still needed to call yourself something. You still had to belong to something. It couldn’t be the form of Christianity you committed to (but were not raised with). It couldn’t be this miasmal liberal form of Christianity, because it wasn’t satisfying. So finally, you decided you had to commit to atheism/agnosticism–but even there, you seem stuck between the two (and they are very different, as you know).

    It seems to me like you’re still searching (and these ruminations of yours are part of that quest). Well, that’s a very large denomination in itself, and a worthy one.

    As for me, I know that my redeemer liveth.

    And that he was just a man.

    And whatever that makes me, that’s what I am.

  4. stokerslodge  June 5, 2017

    Bart, how’s your book on the afterlife coming along and how long will we have to wait before it reaches the shelves of our local bookshops. I’m a little bit anxious and uneasy that the grim reaper will arrive before you book. Please assure me that he won’t!! 😉

    • Bart
      Bart  June 6, 2017

      Research is going great. The book will not appear for probably another two and a half years though! (It will take them a year to produce it once I write it)

  5. Wilusa  June 5, 2017

    I’m sure that whether people raised as Christians *want* to find some valuable “meaning” in the Bible depends on whether their personal experience of Christianity was positive (like yours) or negative (like mine).

    Re those people who made wrong assumptions about your becoming as atheist…it’s hard to understand why they couldn’t see that a person *could* reject Christianity and become a *deist*! Whether there’s any truth in Christianity (or Judaism) has nothing to do with the question of whether *some* intelligent “Being” created the Universe.

  6. john76  June 5, 2017

    You mentioned elsewhere how the problem of suffering led you away from your faith. Presumably, for instance, if there was a loving, caring, personal God who watches over us and has a plan for our lives, there wouldn’t be tragedies like three year old children dying of cancer. But this really isn’t evidence against God, just evidence against an omnibenevolent God (God may still exist, and just be malicious, indifferent, or impotent in the face of wanting to help us). And calling cancer evil is like calling polio evil. Polio is no longer the source of suffering it was because we found the vaccine. If God isn’t only thought of as a parent, but also a teacher who’s viewpoint is not just the individual’s suffering, but also to give the human race a sense of itself of identity, accomplishment and overcoming, the problem of suffering vanishes. What would we be as a historical people if not for adversity? The core of humanity is in flourishing in the face of adversity. Maybe one day we will terraform the planet, cure disease, and conquer death. God as a “teacher” fits in the portrayal of Jesus in the Gospel of John as “rabbi,” which means “teacher.” And even if you don’t agree with this, Christians I know (I’m an atheist) believe in justice in the next life, not in this life.

    • john76  June 5, 2017

      On the other hand, the atheist in me doesn’t know why people defend God. It’s the whole “God is to thank for everything, but blame for nothing.” I’m agnostic, but my thoughts on God are that if I was a prosecutor of the divine, I would prosecute God for “depraved indifference” to human life.  In United States law, depraved-heart murder, also known as depraved-indifference murder, is an action where a defendant acts with a “depraved indifference” to human life and where such act results in a death. In a depraved-heart murder, defendants commit an act even though they know their act runs an unusually high risk of causing death or serious bodily harm to someone else. If the risk of death or bodily harm is great enough, ignoring it demonstrates a “depraved indifference” to human life and the resulting death is considered to have been committed with malice aforethought. The example that comes to mind for me is God creating a world with earthquakes, which have killed millions over our history. On the average about 10,000 people die each year as a result of earthquakes. God could have easily created our world without earthquakes.

    • Bart
      Bart  June 6, 2017

      I”m not trying to convince anyone not to believe. I’m just telling my own story. but I haven’t gotten to that part yet!

    • catguy  June 7, 2017

      I think people have different takes on who God is and why He allows suffering if he is so omnipotent He could stop all suffering in an instant. In my humble opinion, and it is just my opinion, I believe God does have a plan and part of that was sending His Son to conquer death and be resurrected as a future king of this world. It isn’t that God couldn’t end suffering but He allows it because sin entered the world. We have problems, we suffer, some more than others, but regardless we all eventually die. The wages of a sinful world is death. God doesn’t cause suffering, but He allows it until the day His Son will return in the 2nd Advent and claim His throne. Then it will be a different world and one with no more suffering. There are scriptures that describe this renewed earth where all tears will be wiped away. Some of the Jewish festivals celebrate this utopia of the future. Again, this is my interpretation of all I have read in the Bible and I am sure many will disagree with me.

  7. Robert  June 5, 2017

    “To make sense of what is really at stake in ancient writings such as those found in the Bible – if we want them to have any relevance and meaning for our lives — we have to strip them of their mythological assumptions (those held by ancients) and reconfigure them in light of ***our own assumptions***.”

    That last part sounds rather simplistic. Would Bultmann really have admitted to using mere ‘assumptions’ as a replacement for earlier mythological assumptions?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 6, 2017

      Yes, I’m trying to simplify what Bultmann said. Most readers on the blog are probably not interested in Heideggerian existentialist categories (!) But I’ll be laying out my own views in the current series of posts.

  8. hasankhan  June 5, 2017

    How do conservative evangelicals see the difference in manuscripts? Basically when you wrote papers, what were you saying? That those difference are not really differences and they are in agreement? And do you consider those papers to be flawed technically now?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 6, 2017

      We were saying that the *original* words were what was inspired. And so we wanted to know what those words were. But it’s a good question. I’ll add it to my Readers’ Mailbag for a fuller response.

  9. Jason  June 5, 2017

    I don’t know why it’s occurring to me to ask now, but are fundamentalism and a tendency toward the doctrine of inerrancy a recent development or can they actually be traced back to before the enlightenment? Have we covered that before?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 6, 2017

      What we think of as Christian fundamentalism developed in the U.S. in the late 19th century (look up Niagara Conferences)

      • Boltonian  June 6, 2017

        That explains a lot. I have known lots of Christians (of different denominations) over the years here in the UK, mostly lukewarm in their faith, but only two to my knowledge who believe that every word of the Bible is perfect, inerrant and the word of God – one of those is a Christadelphian (a denomination that developed in the US during the early to mid- 19th C by an English emigre) and the other C of E (which is unusual, in my experience).

  10. Steve Monge  June 5, 2017

    I lost my faith when I was 8 years old and the priest in my catholic school told me that I have to confess to him for all my “sins”….(so I can able to have my First Communion)….and I started thinking: ” I am an 8 year old…what kind of sins could I have possibly committed?”…. I wasn’t born a sinner, I am not a sinner…. just like Christopher Hitchens said it very well many years ago:
    “What we have here, picked from no mean source, is a distillation of precisely what is twisted and immoral in the faith mentality. Its essential fanaticism, its consideration of the human being as raw material, and its fantasy of purity.

    Once you assume a creator and a plan, it makes us objects, in a cruel experiment, whereby we are created sick and commanded to be well. I’ll repeat that. Created sick, and then ordered to be well”

  11. Carl  June 6, 2017

    Very interesting post. Does scientific analysis recognize an intangible such as a ‘spiritual force’, and if not are all related experiences categorized as delusions/hallcinations? Cheers

    • Bart
      Bart  June 6, 2017

      Science deals only with what can be found (or established as existing) in the material world.

      • Hormiga  June 6, 2017

        > science deals only with what can be found (or established as existing) in the material world.

        As a sciency guy and a provisional materialistic reductionist, I’d say yes, that’s right to a large degree. But a major part of the scientific enterprise has been figuring out what the material world *is*. We’re still very much in the process of doing that, with no end in sight.

    • talmoore
      talmoore  June 6, 2017

      The simple answer is: if it can be detected in any way, it’s within the purview of science. A corollary is: if it cannot be detected in any way, it is not within the purview of science. Since, by definition, the supernatural and the spiritual are “beyond” detection, they are outside the purview of science. Another corollary, therefore, is: if it’s detectable in any way, it is not supernatural or “spiritual”. It is simply another object or force within the natural world, and, thus, within the purview of science.

      This is something that believers in the “supernatural” don’t appear to be able to mentally grasp. If you can make “contact” with the “supernatural,” then, by definition, you are able to detect it. And if you are able to detect it, it is not “beyond” nature; ergo, it is not, technically, “supernatural”. For something to be truly supernatural or “beyond” nature, it must be absolutely impossible to interact with it. That’s why the so-called “rationalist” philosophers only seek to prove the existence of the supernatural via rational means and not empirical means, because, technically speaking, it is impossible to prove the existence of the supernatural via empirical means.

  12. Jana  June 6, 2017

    When you use the word atheist are you referring to the Christian concept of Divinity or that there is no belief in any sort of Divinity? I’m definitely not questioning you, I’m unclear as to the word usage. Also, my own anecdote … when I was a freshman at University, I took a class “Bible as Literature.” THAT was an eye opener and coincided with other studies and events that resulted in my choosing Yoga and Buddhism. (Sorry I’m late again and I’ve got a lot of catching up .. a lot of illness in my pueblo with rains and temp. 104F .. we’ve got zika and I’ve been sick too .. fortunately not with zika).

    • Bart
      Bart  June 7, 2017

      I’m an atheist in the sense that I don’t think there is any “supernatural” divine being of any sort in the multi-verse.

  13. bmay  June 7, 2017

    I am a mystic…not necessarily a Christian mystic…. but for me, Jesus is a mystic. In this view, the Kingdom of Heaven is within you, a statement made by Jesus himself, which seems to be ignored by most Christians. In this sense, “Kingdom come” is a personal transformation that includes transcending your personal sense of self and experiencing a direct and immediate connection to the divine nature of the Universe…whatever you choose to call it. The core part of this experience includs a powerfull sense that the world is perfect just as it is….even given the physical limitations that make creating a perfect world virtually impossible…at least not without destroying the laws of physics. Humans must be subject to sickness, suffering and death because that is how the physics of it all works. The point is that the sense of perfection transcends our ordinary view of the world. This experience is not a matter of faith. It is the foundation of faith…in any religion. The problem of evil is real in the physical world, but for creatures who are, at their core, spiritual beings (made in the image of God), our true nature lies beyond the reach of the physical world. That, for me, is the real teaching of Jesus and it was poorly understood by his followers, especially by Paul. I don’t think that we will ever know for sure what the apostles who lived with Jesus and his immediate followers actually believed, since that seems to have been lost to history, primarily because they were illiterate, first century Jews who didn’t write down their own understanding. So we ended up with a very Pauline (Greek view) of the teachings of Jesus that minimized the mystical views of Jesus. I know your view, Dr. Ehrman, is that Jesus was just an apocalyptic preacher so we will disagree on that. Yet, I’m curious about your views on Christian Mysticism and why these ideas have not been more influential in Christian theology or in your own thinking. It seems to me that if you were a bit more mystical in your thinking, the problem of evil would not be such a problem for you.

    • Bart
      Bart  June 7, 2017

      Yes, I have to admit, I’ve never been personally attracted to mysticism in any of its forms. But I think it’s a mistake to say that Jesus was “just” an apocalyptic prophet. There was a *lot* involved to being an apocalypticist. And many apocalytpicists were indeed mystics.

      • Jana  June 7, 2017

        This is a very interesting statement Dr. Ehrman. I don’t recall encountering it before? Have you expounded on what the a “lot” would have included? or more on apocalypticists as mystics or point me to one of your books?

        • Bart
          Bart  June 8, 2017

          A clear case, I think, is the author of the book of Revelation, who certainly, as a prophet with his visions, would qualify by most standards of what it would mean to be a mystic.

    • Jana  June 7, 2017

      Thank you too. I appreciated reading.

  14. SidDhartha1953  June 9, 2017

    1) “revelation that can speak directly, without remainder,”…?
    What does “without remainder” mean in that context?
    2) How does Bultmann’s demythologizing differ from Thomas Jefferson’s excising of all the episodes he considered mythical?
    3) I’m floored by the number of comments telling you about yourself in response to a post that stresses how inappropriate and annoying it can be to be continually told what is in your mind. Do you keep a bottle of Scotch at your side when reading comments? I think I might.

    • Bart
      Bart  June 10, 2017

      1. It means that there is nothing that is not understood about it. 2. They are massively different. Long story, but no relation to each other. 3. Always.

  15. stuckyabbott  June 10, 2017

    I too could have a condo in Paris. It is important to realize that the essence of faith is to invite the non-rational into one’s meaning making space before you start asking questions. Thus the liberal mind can say that every mythological text is mythological and still believe in theism and the after-life. Since the non-rational is invited in a priori, it is not seriously questioned and there is almost no real reconciling between what they admit is myth and what they claim to believe. If you admit that the supernatural parts are myth, what basis do you have for belief in a supernatural God/Jesus? Yes they are terrific stories in some ways and full of wisdom. But that does not make God or Jesus Supernatural. And if they are not Supernatural, they are wholly human invention albeit with the insatiable longing that humans have always had for the Supernatural support and answers that we truly do need! Most often people do not do this kind of mental reconciling until they have to – dangerous situations or near death that drag on for a long time.
    You and I are writing about the same things but from very different vantage points – you from a scholar’s viewpoint informed by personal experience, me from a pastoral counselor’s standpoint, informed by personal experience. The Fog of Faith: Surviving My Impotent God is my new memoir which can be obtained on Amazon or ordered through bookstores. I’d send you a copy but I don’t have your address. As a memoir, my book takes the readers through the dangerous situations that affect my faith step by step and the meaning responses I have. I’m also begining to write blogs now to explain more of what that means from a theoretical standpoint – but the basic wisdom is in the memoir.
    Our local newspaper did an interview and article on it. You can read it here http://www.santafenewmexican.com/pasatiempo/books/readings_signings/wrestling-with-god-rev-leona-stucky/article_f0c8786a-6aec-5af9-b341-f40b9578d3e2.html#.WTw5gI6hBtE.gmail or write to me and I’ll send you some attachments both with the article and testimonials about the book, since I can’t send attachments here.
    I know you are very busy and may not take time to read. I will say, however, that our work complements each other – you from a scholarly angle and me from a true story narrative style. I can’t tell you how often I have recommended your books to my patients.
    I also want to say that I have found solace in your journey and your scholarly approach for a long time. Thanks for doing what I could not. And, all the best to you. Leona

    • HawksJ  June 12, 2017

      That was an interesting article about you and your personal story, Leona. You offer some deep insights! Thank you for sharing. I’m curious, what part of Kansas did you grow up in?

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