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When You Feel Like You’re Talking to a Wall

I wrote this post a while ago, and now that I reread it, I think I might be kicking a dead horse.  (Something, in case you wonder, I’ve never actually done.)   But, well, I suppose it’s sometimes OK to leave written twhat has been written, so to say.  So here ‘tis.


There are times when I debate a committed evangelical or fundamentalist Christian on whether the Bible is reliable or not, and I feel like I’m talking to a Martian.  Or maybe I’m a Martian.  We are both educated human beings and do indeed seem to be speaking the same language (English); but how we understand what very same words virtually certainly have to mean is completely opposite.  How can that be?

Again, I’m not going to be trying to provide further counter-arguments for the back and forth that Matthew Firth and I had over whether there are contradictions in the Gospel or not.  I said emphatically yes, he said emphatically no.   But both of us seem to have felt like we were talking to a wall, and I’d like to explain why I felt/feel that way.  He is free to respond if he chooses.

I have a deep sense, based on what debate partners often say themselves, that extremely conservative Christians who think there are not contradictions in the Bible read the Bible very literally when doing so supports what they already think (the world was literally created in six days something like 6000 years ago).  But if a reading runs contrary to what they think, they say the text can’t be read overly literally.  Instead, it needs to be read in a non-literal way so that what it says is not what the author actually meant.  Anyone who doesn’t see this is “arrogant.”

That’s how some conservative Christians can …

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When Were Matthew and Mark First Seen as Scripture: Guest Post on Papias by Stephen Carlson
Was Jesus Perfect? Then How Was He Human?? Guest Post: Jeffrey Siker



  1. Avatar
    BAdams517  May 26, 2019

    Well done Dr. Ehrman. The debate did get a little technical at times and required re-read, but you really did a good job explaining it all in this post. Furthermore, I wonder if the word “contradiction” means something different to different people. This is why the religious often say that “the gospels are different perspectives and this is why there are no contradictions”. And as you have said, they are then just writing their own gospel.

    Example: book 1 says Frank travelled east. Book 2 says Frank travels west. We say there is a contradiction. The religious conservative says he traveled east and then west or vice versa. See, no contradiction. Just one left out the other.

    I think you reference this also in a talk about what jesus said during his crucifixion. Some people say he said all of those things, but each perspective just catches part.

    When you play this type of game there can never be a contradiction because you just get to re-interpret it until there isnt one. It’s the Kobayashi Maru for the non religious.

  2. Avatar
    mpmull2u  May 26, 2019

    Speaking of Fundamentalism , just saw this in NYT this morning
    So it’s now been 100 years that modern US Fundamentalism has been a ‘position’. Just FYI Dr. E.
    I enjoy your blog and books/great courses.

  3. JMJ
    JMJ  May 26, 2019

    Examples from both perspectives, either from antiquity or currently, are so important because they provide a place to work from to gain understanding. In my ministry I’ve learned that many (most) Christians don’t want to gain understanding of another’s perspective (truth) because it might turn their world upside-down. They hold so tightly to what they’ve been taught that sharing a higher truth with them is like ‘pouring new wine into old wine skins’ and the result is similar to when a child fiercely defends Santa Claus and then has to be told Santa is not real, but a ‘spirit of the season’. It can be devastating.

  4. Avatar
    LesBarrett  May 26, 2019

    Contemporary communication (maybe all communication) at the personal level seems loaded with illogical weight. The levels of human experience and understanding, not to mention education, are often magnitudes apart; yet we must have some common ground where the essentials that are important to us individually get addressed, or at least “addressed at”, to coin a nuance. Shortcomings of such communication are overlooked with little apparent consequence as our lives march forward. Careless, imprecise, and even wrong utterances are regularly used to accomplish exchanges of signals that may have little or nothing to do with what is actually meant. At this point I could go on for many pages of examples; but I will leave that to the experience of the reader. If what I have said is at all true, it will be up to the reader to come up with their own examples, assuming that the concept is sufficiently interesting at this moment. Otherwise, it is “in one ear and out the other”.

    This phenomenon is common in matters of religion. Stakes are high; emotions too. We reach into the toolbox that we have with us to get through to the next moment. Truth is not the first priority, especially when it appears to be an unattractive path that may lead us somewhere out of our comfort zone.

    I have a theory that one can’t learn anything that one does not already know. This sounds extreme if taken literally. It means that one must have relevant mental structures in place in order to fairly evaluate a concept and incorporate it into one’s own thinking, one’s own “canon”. Learning is to some extent a process of modification of prior incorporations of information and disinformation into our operative thinking. This is a deeply personal process that is often beyond the influence of fact, and is not to be confused with fact. It is a kind of artistic creation that defines us, masks our weaknesses, and even protects our outward persona.

    This will all seem like meaningless gibberish to anyone who has not already established a framework amenable to some of the ideas. If there is no fertile ground, there will be no sprout.

    Perhaps the best one can do is to avoid low-level “Jerry Springer” situations when attempting to communicate with someone who has different goals for the spectacle. Change threatens.

  5. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  May 26, 2019

    Well, this sounds just like the very frustrating political discussion I had with my neighbor last night about how he could have never voted for Hillary Clinton because she had the father (Vince Foster) of her daughter (Chelsea) murdered. My neighbor has sources which state this and any fact checking I might do is just “fake news” which he contends I will believe because I am a ‘Trump hater.” I know we don’t discuss politics on this blog, but it illustrates the issue quite well in this case. My neighbor then ended our discussion contending that everyone is entitled to his own opinion implying that one opinion is as good as any other opinion. There has to be some philosophical way of understanding and dealing with these “walls.” I suggest all watch the recent “Live” showing of “All in the Family” and the “Jeffersons” for even better examples. It is available on “Spectrum On Demand.” Let me know if you get this solved.

    • Avatar
      flcombs  May 28, 2019

      The last time I went through something like that, I just said “There is an opinion that you are an adulterer, murderer and thief and you would say you are not. Are opinions really equal so there is at least a 50% chance those things are true about you? Or should we look at evidence or facts to see if that opinion isn’t really based on any evidence and all opinions aren’t equally valid?”

  6. Avatar
    Stephen  May 26, 2019

    A potentially interesting project for someone with too much time on their hands. Collect all the attempts, both historical and contemporary, to reconcile the birth narratives in Matthew and Luke, Some of them are quite intricate and clever and one can admire the ingenuity of such attempts if nothing else.

    Prof Ehrman what is your appraisal of Mike Licona’s concept of “telescoping” in trying to resolve Biblical contradictions?


    • Bart
      Bart  May 27, 2019

      I think biblical authors *did* telescope their narratives. And when they did so, they often created contradictions.

      • Avatar
        flcombs  May 28, 2019

        So… as I hear around these parts from Bible conservatives: the Bible is inerrant and literally the perfect word of God. You just have to know somehow when things have been telescoped, translated incorrectly, misunderstood, should be symbolic or allegory, etc. When in doubt, you can get help in understanding it from any one of the 30,000 or so Christian groups out there that have the answer. Then you can take it literally. 🙂

      • Avatar
        lobe  May 28, 2019

        Exactly! Just because the author may have had a good literary reason to change the narrative doesn’t mean that there isn’t a contradiction. It means that the reason behind the contradiction can be understood.

  7. Avatar
    ddecker54  May 26, 2019

    I agree. I had to re-read Rev. Firth’s replies several times in order to try and follow his reasoning/interpretations. I still don’t follow much of them. The sentences he re-interprets are simple, declarative sentences using non-ambiguous terms; “die”, “appear”, “go” are not words with multiple, varying meanings. His arguments remind me of Bill Clinton’s famous “It all depends on what you mean by ‘is'” comment.

    This is why the old adage “never argue politics or religion” holds true.

  8. Avatar
    Boltonian  May 26, 2019

    Rev Firth has too much invested in his beliefs to ever argue rationally. I had a similar and equally fruitless email debate with the Bishop of Lichfield some years back. Like you I employed Ockham’s razor but to no avail.

  9. epicurus
    epicurus  May 26, 2019

    I’ve read many apologists and watched debates and just shake my head at how they can compartmentalize this kind of thinking – I’m sure they don’t live their everyday lives using this kind of interpretation of what people say, and in fact when they go after other religions they definitely don’t.

  10. Avatar
    Robert  May 26, 2019

    I once heard a lecture by Richard Dawkins on evolution. Afterwards, a member of the audience said “after hearing your talk, I am more convinced than ever that evolution is false”. This is why I think that debates can be counter-productive. It’s worse than talking to a wall. People seldom if ever consider your arguments rationally — they try to find reasons why you are wrong. And when they find one, no matter how invalid, it just reinforces their original beliefs. (That’s my theory anyway.)

  11. Avatar
    Nexus  May 26, 2019

    You forgot to mention that you told your friend you were going to give them an orderly account of how the fire broke out so that they understand the truth of the fire. 😉

  12. Avatar
    Thomasfperkins  May 26, 2019

    The great philosopher, Paul Simon, said: “Still a man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest”. True in 1968, true now.

  13. Avatar
    James Chalmers  May 26, 2019

    Orthodox Christians, sometime after the Arians were beaten back, were all obliged to believe both that Jesus of Nazareth was a man and that he was God. That’s very difficult to do, and most Christians simply cheat, by holding beliefs about Jesus the man the in fact are consistent with his being human. They deny the humanity of Jesus.
    Those who, for some peculiar reason, maintain the belief that scripture is free of error must hold a similar belief about the humanity of the human beings who wrote the scriptures–that they, unlike any other five dozen human authors, never erred in anything they wrote, even though they are often dealing with the intersection of the divine with the mundane, an area of inquiry much more challenging than most. Inerrantists don’t precisely deny the humanity of the authors of scripture, but they do attribute to them characteristics no actual human being has ever exhibited–the ability to hold beliefs entirely consistent with one another, and entirely accurate and fully nuanced, and to find words to get these beliefs down on paper without error. To err is human–except when it comes to the writing of the books of the Bible. Of course it may be that God guided the authors of scripture, but that they followed this guidance without error–that makes them superhuman, unlike any actual human being ever known, unlike what any finite being can even be conceived to be.
    The doctrine of inerrancy is bad nature-of-man theology, akin to the denial of the humanity of Jesus Christ.
    (Further inquiry into these issues would require distinguishing the moral and the intellectual failings of man, both of which infect every word a human being says or writes.)

    • Bart
      Bart  May 27, 2019

      I would say that almost all Christians believed Christ was both human and divine *before* the Arian controversy. I talk about all that in my book How Jesus Became God. But yes, I agree with the analogy. Fundamentalist Christians have a hard time saying that the Bible is in any real sense actually “human”

      • Avatar
        Leovigild  May 27, 2019

        Even the Arians felt that Christ was both human and divine! Just in a different way than the Orthodox.

  14. Avatar
    RICHWEN90  May 26, 2019

    Matthew Firth might be exhibiting “true believer” syndrome. I caught a youtube video a while back in which a fundamentalist averred that if the Bible told him that 2+2=5, he would not hesitate to toss his pocket calculator in the trash.

  15. Avatar
    brenmcg  May 26, 2019

    I think the frustration comes from the fact that in a sense you’re both correct. By any normal reading of the text there are contradictions in the gospels. But Matthew Firth’s claim is that he can re-interpret everything in such a way as to avoid contradiction, which is also correct.

    So the new testament *can* be interpreted in a contradiction free way. However the real point is that there’s nothing impressive or unique about this; its true of every book ever written.

    • Bart
      Bart  May 27, 2019

      The question then is whether *any* contradiction can exist in *any* book. And if not, then what’s the point of saying it doesn’t exist in the Bible?

      • Avatar
        brenmcg  May 27, 2019

        Guess the point is that it gives the illusion of a miraculous occurrence.

        Any book can be interpreted to be have contradictions or interpreted to be free of contradictions.

        The real debate should be, does the natural interpretation of the texts lead to contradictions. In which case I think Rev Firth would concede that it does.

        • Bart
          Bart  May 28, 2019

          Yeah, I doubt it.

          • Avatar
            rcberna88  June 3, 2019

            Great post, glad to be a member of the blog after hearing Dr. Ehrman’s excellent interview on the Making Sense podcast. One of the most interesting cases of talking to a wall ironically is that of Dr. Aron Wall, a physicist but ardent Christian believer – here’s an example of his arguments. Try to nail him down and it’s like picking up mercury with a fork.


            He especially tries to dismantle a naturalist reading of the Bible, but I admit my cognitive dissonance is in overdrive at the fact such a gifted scientist also takes such willing leaps of faith. Literally talking to a (W)all.

  16. Avatar
    doug  May 26, 2019

    When I was a conservative Christian, no argument could sway me from my cherished beliefs. I was *intellectually dishonest*, based on my emotional needs. Now I at least try to be honest, even tho I am not perfect.

  17. Avatar
    davebohn  May 26, 2019

    Hi Dr. Bart- thanks for what you do…it matters, greatly. Many of us recognize that there is an emotional cost to wall-talking, so again, thanks. Sometimes “talking to a wall” has value, unseen…as long as it doesn’t become “banging your head against a wall!”

  18. Avatar
    Jayredinger  May 26, 2019

    I have been saying this a long time, it’s like I am speaking to aliens when talking to Christians, I should know, I was one of those aliens. The indoctrination is so complete that no reason prevails and since religious indoctrination is acquired emotionally, their beliefs are immune to reason and logic.

  19. Avatar
    blclaassen  May 26, 2019

    After years of study I am of the mind that the “wall” one comes up against while talking to the faithful is part of the evolutionary makeup of the human brain. Before children achieve the ability to reason the young brain is hard-wired to accept all it is told by authority figures, mainly parents. Of course religions require steadfast belief and come complete with a framework for belief at all cost, including denial of logic that threatens that belief. We have all seen the intellectual acrobatics required to stay faithful in the light of mounting evidence that disproves our sacred beliefs as tradition and not fact. It is frustrating but not surprising to witness the violence done to reason just to keep alive the ideals we had “forced” upon us as children. Of course there are no contradictions in the gospels because that would mean they are not what we were taught they are and that can be threatening to a person’s sense of identity and security. Maybe there’s a 12-step program(?)

    • Avatar
      godspell  May 31, 2019

      1)Bart is an authority figure. He’s an actual authority in his field.

      2)People can get obstinately attached to ideas they read about last Tuesday on the internet.

      3)Atheists are, on the whole, just as wall-like as theists, when they take a mind to be. “Jesus is a myth! Bart Ehrman is dumb!”

      So no, I don’t think that works. Lots of people raised with this or that religion are quite reasonable, and lots of people raised with no religion at all are more stubborn than Francis the Talking Mule.

      I think it comes down to personality, which is the explanation for pretty much all human behavior. It’s innate. We are not all built the same way, and we react differently to the same situations. This is why changing belief systems never changes people very much. They retrofit the belief system to suit themselves.

  20. Avatar
    Hngerhman  May 26, 2019

    It comes down to a function of, and the relationship between, attitude and standards. Motivated reasoning devours intellectual honesty. And, with low enough standards for evidence (or excessively high standards for ‘necessary contradiction’), all is possible.

    Unfortunately, human nature is such that nearly no one will change their mind during a debate, especially if the participant has an onlooking audience of supporters. The psychological need to save face, or save their supporters’ esteem, is too high. I’ve seen some of the smartest and normally open-minded humans on the planet dig in on their position when they have “a stake” in the interchange. If they had been the onlooker, they’d have howled at someone making the same arguments.

    Few people have the intellectual honesty concede a point midstream in an interchange. Dr Ehrman does it. Regularly. But for most people, it’s in the quiet moments reflecting on a debate (or argument or article..), when trying to scratch that itching sense of “something is still bugging me”, that minds change. When no self-image is immediately at stake. When the arguments can be mulled over carefully. When that sinking sense of realizing one is wrong can wash over unencumbered by embarrassment. That’s when attitude allows the proper standards to prevail – and walls come down.

    • Avatar
      godspell  May 31, 2019

      Then new walls get built in its place. And the Circle of Strife goes on. 😉

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