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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
    AlbertHodges  May 26, 2019

    I believe you are correct regarding Jairus’ daughter but incorrect when discussing the birth narratives. What the gospels in general are doing are not recording the birth stories like a forensic investigator writing records for people 2000 years later. Rather, they are relating oral traditions they have received and weaving them into the overall gospels.

    For Luke, he is neither confirming nor denying the flight into Egypt. It is likely he doesnt know about it. For example:

    Yesterday, I went to visit my mom at the nursing home. On the way home, I stopped at the gas station. When I was discussing the situation with one friend, I discussed stopping at the gas station and running into a mutual friend. I discussed that information because it was of interest to both of us.

    When discussing it with a family member, I left out the part about the gas station. It was not of interest to that family member. Both my friend and my family member were curious how my mom was. Only one was interested in me seeing my friend at the gas station.

    The gospel attributed to Matthew SEEMS to have been written by a Jewish believer and likely intended for a Jewish -Christian audience. Hence, the flight into Egypt (where Jews had escaped to many times during times of persecution and where there were Jewish communities) would be of great interest to Jewish believers. In fact, members of the Zadokite priesthood had built a temple in Leontopolis when the Maccabees installed their own priests into Temple service.

    The gospel attributed to Luke was NOT written by a Jewish convert. His writing was written with a Gentile or mixed audience in mind.

    It seems to me that you are expecting something out of these gospels that they were not written to provide nor intended by their authors. It is a misuse of those works to treat them in some literal manner that far-too-many fundamentalists always seem to base their beliefs on. It seems as well that in this case, you see a contradiction that does not necessarily exist.

    Maybe the problem is that you both speak Martian but just different Martian languages. Perhaps, in this case, the proper way to understand them is to read/dissect them in the context their were wriitten in and with the authors’ intentions, backgrounds and worldviews in mind.

    Just my thoughts.

    • Bart
      Bart  May 27, 2019

      I completely agree that the birth narratives are based on oral traditions, and that Luke didn’t know the traditions recorded in Matthew. And that differs from the case with Jairus’s daughter, where Matthew changed a written text he had in front of him. That means they are contradictions created in different ways. But they are *both* contradictions (however they came into existence). If we agree on that neither of us is a Martian!

  2. Avatar
    VEndris  May 26, 2019

    Two things, the first you get because you’ve been there, the second bolsters the first.

    Saying the bible is infallible is not something for an evangelical to prove or disprove. It just is. You and I and many on this blog have been in the same place. If anything contradicts the bible, it must be wrong. Not the bible.

    The second is that most evangelicals, and especially Firth, have a lot ridding on their belief. I would venture to guess that most of us that eventually overcame ‘inerrancy’ were already becoming disillusioned or had very little stake in it. Firth has build a career on it. Many evangelical Christians believe that if the bible has ‘lies’ in it, their whole faith must be a lie. To people like Firth this is even greater. If the bible has a lie in it, he feels his whole life is a lie. The stakes are too great. No amount of logic can overcome that.

    I enjoy your posts and find them very honest. This is why I and most on this blog, Christians and non-Christians, rather read you than someone like Firth.

  3. Avatar
    rburos  May 26, 2019

    I’m not really sure why you would worry about it, as you’ve created a legacy that will long outshine theirs. More and more people in the country are openly becoming ‘nones’, so the fundamentalists aren’t winning at all. Of course, most of those same ‘nones’ aren’t taking a critical look at the NT either, so maybe we aren’t winning at all either. Harumph.

  4. Avatar
    Pattycake1974  May 26, 2019

    When I was a fundamentalist, inerrancy meant that the entire Bible was literally true with no contradictions whatsoever. But I am wondering if views for inerrancy are changing, albeit slowly. For example, Firth doesn’t think there are contradictions, but doesn’t he also say that the Genesis story is not literally true? Even some from my former fundamentalist organization are looking to Dan Wallace as someone who is a trustworthy Christian that will not lead them astray. Some of them have given up the idea that the KJV is the only translation they should read, and to my surprise, a few have accepted the shorter ending to Mark. When I was a part of that organization, Dan Wallace would have been seen as unsaved and hellbound. I wasn’t even allowed on the internet, and now, they’re all pretty much on Facebook and Instagram.

    Conservative evangelicals have kicked up a lot of dust lately, but sometimes things have to get worse before it gets better. If Wallace and others like him help fundamentalist Christians move into a type of Christianity where they are at least able to listen to scholarly views, then that’s better than nothing. (Trying to be optimistic about it all!)

    As far as the debate with Firth goes, it was maddening at times.

  5. Avatar
    flcombs  May 26, 2019

    So what if there is a God and he guided the Bible. Perhaps he deliberately ensures contradictions so that people would not turn it into an object of worship and basically idolize it instead of his message!

    Not saying that is so, but I think it is odd that fundamentalists won’t consider that as a possibility. Study the Bible and determine its nature and reliability first, then decide how you should take it

    As you have pointed out before, not believing in an inerrant or perfect Bible doesn’t have to stop someone from being a Christian. Just how they take the Bible.

  6. Avatar
    mikezamjara  May 27, 2019

    A few years ago I had an argument about the genealogies in Luke and Matthew. My opponent said that since there was no word for son-in-law , Heli could be father in law of Joseph and thats why Joseph is called son of both Jacob and Heli. That was one of tha arguments to say that Luke is the genealogy of Mary. So I did my homework and answered with the next paragraph but I would like to ask you If you think I am correct since I dont speak greek or hebrew.

    “YOUR ARGUMENT ABOUT THE WORD OF “SON IN LAW” IS FALSE. In hebrew “Ha-tán” was son-in-law and is different of “ben” that is only son. Check this text analysis oh Nehemiah 6:18 where both words are used in the same verse and that clearly shows it https://biblehub.com/text/nehemiah/6-18.htm. In greek there were words for father (pater), mother (mētēr), father in law (pentheros) mother-in law (penthera), daughter-in-law (nymphēn ) and were used many times in the bible. In this analysis of Luke 12:53 and John 18:13 you can see it. https://biblehub.com/text/luke/12-53.htm, https://biblehub.com/text/john/18-13.htm. Again, this is an invention of apologists, not historical or biblical facts”

    However I am confused by 1 Samuel 24:16 were Saul (who was father in law of king David) callls him “son” with the word “bə-nî”. Why do you think it is not used the right word of son in law “Ha-tán”.

    • Bart
      Bart  May 27, 2019

      I’ve never been too bothered about that one. I always thought it was like what happened last night at dinner, when my waiter brought me my martini, and I said, “Bless you my son” (!)

  7. Avatar
    AstaKask  May 27, 2019

    Haidt has this wonderful metaphor where reason is like the presidential press secretary. The press secretary does not get to make policy, their job is to make arguments for the policy whatever that may be. And if these arguments happen to be convoluted or even self-contradictory… well, that’s just what the job demands.
    Sure, if you get *enough* counter-evidence, the person you argue with may change their mind – but it’s more likely that they say “Well, I can’t argue with you but I know you’re wrong and that’s that.” If you want to change someone’s mind, it’s more effective if you try some kind of indirect tactic.

  8. Avatar
    VEndris  May 27, 2019

    Dr. Ehrman,

    I already added a reply, but I wanted to add something else that I thought you might find relevant.

    I attended Boston University for grad school in religion. In my ethics classes I was seen as the ‘big conservative’ because I often argued against inferred liberal positions: anti-abortion, anti-gay marriage, priority of the literal interpretation of scripture, etc. Before BU, I had similar ethics classes at Louisiana College. Here I was seen as the ‘big liberal’ because I often argued against inferred conservative positions: pro-choice, pro-gay marriage, anti-inerrancy, etc. I argued these positions in each respective institution not because I believed them, but because it upset me that they were so underrepresented. Studying a similar discipline in such widely different places taught me a valuable lesson, i.e., most of the time the one side is not seeking to understand the other side. They are content to just call the other side immoral or stupid.

    While at BU I took a couple of classes from the then associate professor of Religion, Jonathan Klawans. He, probably without meaning to, taught me one of the greatest lessons I ever learned in dealing with people. Almost every time a student related a position, either her/his own or from another source, he would ask us to consider what was ‘behind’ that position. His point was (at least this is the way I took it) that everyone has a position behind what they are saying – some ultimate belief that they are seeking to justify.

    I have come to believe that the key to accepting others is to realize that we are all trying to protect positions that are very important to us. What I don’t get is how one is supposed to help people realize that they are not being intellectually honest about the other side. How, for example, do you get Firth to acknowledge that your position on these issues does make a lot more sense unless you buy into the fact that the scriptures are ‘God-Ordained’ to begin with? I have my theories, but I’ll leave that to people much smarter than me to figure out.

  9. Avatar
    Bewilderbeast  May 27, 2019

    Your politeness is commendable. The very reverend lost me when he accused you of doing what he does. Period.
    He shamefully said “Surely a far more honest assessment is to assume that, like many ancient authors, Luke simply chose to omit an event that he knew to have happened. I suspect that you take a contrary view not because of any sound reasoning but rather because it’s something that you believe.” Right . . .

  10. Avatar
    Jim Cherry  May 27, 2019

    One of your best posts ever. You got some frustrations off your chest!
    Flat earthers, young earthers and inerrantists often use “Transference” (an alcoholic says “I don’t have any problems, it’s everyone around me that has the problems!”). Here they say, “I’m not biased, but the scholars, researchers or scientists are all biased against my position.”
    As you have pointed out before, scholars of many and various faith and non-faith backgrounds agree the earth is round, old and there are Biblical contradictions.
    By no accident, it is only committed Fundamentalists/ Evangelicals who hold to discredited concepts – they are biased against reason and logic. Otherwise, their particular world view will fall apart.
    The psychological stakes are very high for them. Non-reason approaching insanity is their only option.
    That is why I left their camp decades ago.

  11. Avatar
    godspell  May 27, 2019

    Productive conversations are probably not possible when one or both parties are utterly wedded to a particular point of view that the conversation somehow hinges upon. Some of our opinions are tangential, open to question–others are not. Religious views are certainly high on the list of such logical roadblocks, but they are hardly alone there. (Who would you rather be marooned on a desert island with–Rev. Firth or Richard Carrier?)

    People yearn for something solid, something that can’t be questioned. Life is so uncertain, we look for stability. The undeniable fact that ALL beliefs (and even scientific theories) can be questioned only makes us that much more determined to say this particular one can’t be.

    This tendency is much stronger in some than others. I talk to friends all the time who aren’t religious, and I question something they believe that has nothing to do with religion at all, and run into the same response (and not nearly so measured as Rev. Firth’s). Others can be more flexible, or at least less intemperate in their response, but I suspect they remain much the same in their thinking–like a sapling bending in the wind, then returning to its original upright position when the wind (that is to say, me) stops blowing.

    The question then becomes–if you removed religion from human society and discourse–what else would these people latch onto? And would that be better or worse for the rest of us? And history does give us some clues there.

  12. John4
    John4  May 27, 2019

    I enjoyed, Bart, watching you beat your dead horse. I enjoyed it more, really, than the debate itself, lol.

    In recent years, I’ve hosted a number of political debates on my Facebook page. I enjoy these discussions because they help me clarify my own ideas about political issues. I don’t, of course, expect to convert my interlocutors. I don’t expect them to understand, really, my arguments. Often, I don’t understand theirs. But, I *do* often learn something about myself; I refine my own views. So, I enjoy the discussions. My interlocutors do sometimes raise points I hadn’t considered and they do sometimes teach me something.

    Now, I haven’t devoted my entire professional life to thinking deeply about political issues. I just like to kibitz about politics on Facebook. You, on the other hand, Bart, *have* devoted your entire professional life to thinking deeply about the New Testament and about what various parts of it actually mean. I can’t imagine that your evangelical interlocutors ever teach you much.

    So, what do *you* get from these debates, then?

    Maybe a bit of further insight into the approaches taken by your interlocutors, folks who are, after all, arguing positions which you yourself argued in your wayward youth? I’m not sure.

    Anyway, I’m glad you did a debate here, Bart. Here in your home court for once. But, I wouldn’t mind if you moved on now and didn’t devote blog time to more debates in the future. Far better than the debates, from my point of view, have been the *wonderful* guest posts you’ve been hosting recently.

    Thanks so much, Bart, for your beautiful blog!


    • Bart
      Bart  May 27, 2019

      Most of the time I get a fat paycheck that I devote to charity. This time I got direct donations for charity, maybe $3000. So definitely worth it!

  13. Avatar
    rivercrowman  May 27, 2019

    Yes, I felt like I was talking to a wall recently when I debated a strong Catholic woman on Facebook about abortion rights. She told me all I said was just my opinion “and it does not matter, since all life belongs to God.”

  14. Avatar
    Kavsor  May 27, 2019

    I once heard professor Dale Martin (professor Ehrman’s colleague at Yale) talk about a Harvard educated geologist who came to the conclusion that ” if all the evidence in the universe turns against creationism, I would be the first to admit it, but I would still be a creationist because that is what the word of God seems to indicate”. In my humble opinion this tragedy is deeply rooted in our fear of death. As we crash the party called life we obviously talk ourselves into believing that the party is thrown in our honor and we want the party to never end.
    Religion is the only game in town to offer an eternal life. Some people then jump at the chance of eternal life no matter how unlikely, even if it often means they have to accept the bible or the quran or… wholly, deny any contradictions despite massive evidence to the contrary. When I hear someone say that there are no contradictions in the hol(e)y book, in my mind it translates into : I don’t want to die, I want to live for ever even if it means I have to stand in the presence of God for all eternity bow down to him endlessly and worship him relentlessly because it still is much better than the alternative. It’s not.

  15. Avatar
    flshrP  May 27, 2019

    I’m wondering. Where in the NT and/or the Church Fathers is it stated or implied that the words are to be taken figuratively and interpreted to reveal the true meaning of these writers? Are we to think that the 27 books of the NT are some type of gnostic writings that were produced for the sole benefit of the Christians–writings that are filled with hidden meanings that only initiates, like the Rev. Firth, for example, are qualified to explain? Is the NT actually the “Good News” for all mankind? Or does it need to be decoded for the less educated?

    It seems to me that Martin Luther had a similar idea. Priesthood of the laity. Every person his own theologian. Sounds like the slippery slope to me where anything can mean anything.

    • Bart
      Bart  May 28, 2019

      Most ancient authors simply thought that readers would take them at their word, though there were certainly some who were writing something like what we might call “allegorical” or “mythological” accounts. They almost always indicated that this is what they were doing, though.

  16. Avatar
    dankoh  May 27, 2019

    I am looking at this having just come back from coffee with a Chassidic (Chabad) rabbi, who was telling me that when the trees (which require sunlight to live) were created the day before the sun was created, it was God had created nature and could do anything he wanted with it. There’s not really much one can do to counter that type of argument – though I tried. (I believe in lost causes.)

    • Bart
      Bart  May 28, 2019

      I’m not sure you’re the one supporting a lost cause on this one…. Did he explain how there could be a “an evening and a morning” on the first day (and following) before there was a sun?

      • Avatar
        dankoh  May 28, 2019

        Well, the lost cause is thinking that I could change his mind… 🙂

        But I didn’t have to ask that one: I already know how he would answer – God had said “let there be light” and that’s why there was evening and then morning. Still, I find the general response to any scientific challenge of “God can do anything he wants” to be intellectually dishonest; it’s a cop-out to avoid hard thinking.

      • Avatar
        jrblack  May 28, 2019

        In the view of many ancient and/or primitive cultures, day and night are not caused by the presence or absence of the sun. The daytime sky is not bright because the sun inhabits it; it is bright simply because it is made of light and therefore self-luminous. Similarly, the nighttime sky is not dark because the sun has gone down; it is dark because it is made of darkness and therefore not self-luminous. (Notice that on overcast days the sky is still bright, even though the sun is nowhere to be found, and that on clear nights the moon is often quite bright, but the sky remains dark nevertheless. The “obvious” conclusion to be drawn from this is that neither the sun nor the moon is responsible for the state of the sky, but rather that the sky just is what it is regardless of them.)

        In this view, it makes perfect sense for there to be day and night even when there is not yet any sun, because “day” and “night” are just the human names for the self-luminous daytime sky and the non-luminous nighttime sky. And it also makes perfect sense for there to be vegetation as soon as there is water and land to nourish it, because in this view plants do not need the sun in order to live–all they need is the light of the self-luminous sky.

        All of this is quite clear in Genesis 1 if the narrative is taken on its own terms. The same is also true of the primary Egyptian creation narratives, which run along the same lines: water, light, darkness, earth, sky, and vegetation all exist before the appearance of sun and moon. The Egyptians didn’t see a problem with this any more than the Hebrews did, and for the same reasons. The problems begin when we start importing our modern scientific ideas into the text and try to make sense of it that way. It simply can’t be done, and it’s really kind of silly even to try.

        • Bart
          Bart  May 29, 2019

          Right! I’m not saying it makes no sense from an ancient point of view. I’m saying that given what we know now it doesn’t make any sense.

  17. Avatar
    darren  May 27, 2019

    If someone could discover a mechanism to get around that form of hysterical blindness, what a different world it could be.

  18. Avatar
    NancyGKnapp  May 27, 2019

    In terms of changing minds, debate is probably the least productive and most frustrating method that you use. I read my first of your books, “Misquoting Jesus” as a result of your interview with Terry Gross. I liked that you shared your faith journey, one that resonated with my own. Now several books, great courses and blogs later, I feel that i am really growing in critical thinking and understanding of the New testament and early christianity. This is something I wasn’t getting elsewhere.

  19. Avatar
    Pattycake1974  May 28, 2019

    The Great Debate from 1985 helped me see that the Oneness doctrine I believed so strongly in was incorrect. It had a profound impact on my life. Not everyone who watches, or in this case reads, a debate is unwilling to change their mind.

    • Avatar
      RonaldTaska  May 28, 2019

      Pattycake1974: Could you explain what was the great Debate from 1985 and what is the “Oneness Doctrine”? Thanks.

      • Avatar
        Pattycake1974  May 29, 2019

        It was a debate about the Godhead that appeared on The John Ankerberg Show, also called Oneness Vs.Trinity Debate. The Trinitarian side believes that God is expressed in 3 coequal persons—Father, Son, Holy Spirit—whereas the Oneness side believes God is 1 person playing three separate roles. For example, I can be a mother, sister, and daughter but I’m still just 1 person.

        Oneness believers think that the Trinity is pagan and anyone who believes it is going to hell. Understanding the Godhead is key to salvation along with other prescriptive elements based on Acts 2:38.

        Here’s some more information about it: https://www.namb.net/apologetics-blog/oneness-pentecostalism/

        Here’s the link to the debate—https://youtu.be/1t1OIPb9JXQ

        Amazingly, if you read the comments, people are still arguing about the Godhead!

  20. Avatar
    dankoh  May 28, 2019

    I’m sure this one has been dealt with before, but I have to wonder the fundamentalists are so concerned with the genealogy of Jesus when at the same time they say he was born of a virgin? (Somewhat like that anaconda the other day….)

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