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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
    Gary  May 28, 2019

    As a former fundamentalist Christian myself, it is very hard to even consider that your entire worldview is based on assumptions, conjecture, and ancient tall tales. That is why they fight it so stubbornly.

    But keep putting out the evidence, Dr. Ehrman. It *is* having an effect. I am living proof. I left Christianity after reading your books. My children and most likely their children will grow up not believing in capricious gods and devils. And I’m sure there are hundreds if not thousands of others who could say the same. Thank you!

    I believe that you have made significant contributions to one of the greatest movements in human history: the debunking of fear-based religious superstitions.

  2. Avatar
    Evan  May 29, 2019

    Once you assume inerrancy to be Ultimate Truth, then by definition you MUST be able to shove ALL square pegs into round holes somehow. Perhaps the debate needs to be engaged entirely on the core issue — why would anyone believe in inerrancy? After all, it is not a biblical doctrine.

  3. Avatar
    barackobush  May 30, 2019

    Off topic question, I don’t know where else to ask but I assume you will see this on a recent post like this. What is a good resource or book about the Dead Sea scrolls that documents the discrepancies and agreements of the later manuscripts for both biblical and non biblical texts?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 31, 2019

      Do you mean a discussion of the biblical manuscripts among the Dead Sea Scrolls and how they differ from the standard Hebrew texts? I suppose the best place to go would be a book on the textual criticism of the Hebrew Bible; the standard is Wurtheim, The Text of the Old Testament; he has an entire section on the Scrolls

      • Avatar
        barackobush  May 31, 2019

        Yes that is what I was looking for. Thanks!

  4. Avatar
    RWatts  May 31, 2019

    Heh. For so many religious fundamentalists I come across, the claim:-

    “You cannot disprove God!”

    – appears to be some kind of proof that God exists.

    But then, the rejoinder:-

    “Well you cannot disprove Vishu!”

    – is a proof of just how stupid non believers are.

  5. Avatar
    madi22  May 31, 2019

    Is this debate going to be uploaded? Would be nice to hear a new debate, its been a while.

    • Bart
      Bart  May 31, 2019

      It was a debate on the blog — a written back and forth. Just search for Firth and you’ll find the various exchanges.

  6. Avatar
    Apocryphile  May 31, 2019

    I think I’ve mentioned before that what interests me aren’t so much the details of a gospel story, or whether contradictions exist between gospel accounts, but rather, how likely is it that a gospel story might have some historical truth behind it. Was there a story that was told in the oral traditions about Jesus, regardless of narrative details, before it was written down? In the case of the story of Jairus’ daughter, there is probably no way of ever knowing whether he or his daughter ever existed, but the question is (to me at least) fascinating. How do you come down on this, Bart? Do you think the story was just invented for literary purposes, or might there be some vague historical memory behind it? Again, not that the miracle actually occurred, but whether a story like this might have been circulating by word of mouth before the gospels.

    • Bart
      Bart  June 2, 2019

      Yes, my view is that the story was invented by an early Christian story-teller; there’s no way to know for certain, of course, but as with all such cases, the burden of proof is on someone who thinks there is a historical kernel here, and I don’t think there’s much evidence to suggest it.

  7. Avatar
    Anna Basso  June 2, 2019

    There is a lot of power at stake when certain ecclesiastical circles make concessions to the interpretation of the text. Once they start to say their particular systematic view is a possibility among others it certainly starts to affect their legitimacy to persecute and execrate their enemies inside or outside their religious tradition – they won´t be able to perform certain acts claiming they are by the authority of the text. What is not a clever attitude in my opinion… for many reasons. To have listened what you heard from an ordinary evangelical is something expected in a certain way, but coming from a religious authority that has the intellectual background to debate honestly what is in the text and admit the conditions of the narrative, it proves what I said, that is not a matter of rationality or blind faith, but an “institutional” policy towards opposition.

  8. Avatar
    Ken  June 2, 2019

    Tim McGrew came to our “Atheist Christian Bookclub” last year here in Texas and made an attempt to harmonize the contradiction between Mark and John regarding the the timing of Jesus’s death.

    You can see his explanation starting on slide 17 of https://slideplayer.com/slide/7872065/: “John does *not* say that it was the day of preparation *for* the Passover; he says that it was the day of preparation *of* Passover. Mark uses the same term, but he also tells us what it means: Mark 15:42—And when evening had come, since it was the day of Preparation, that is, the day before the Sabbath, … In other words, ‘preparation’ means preparation for the Sabbath.” I recommend reading his slides 17 through 23 for his full argument.

    He seemed pleased to be able to undercut one of your favorite contradictions. How would you respond to his attempted harmonization?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 3, 2019

      I’d suggest he work on his Greek a bit…. In any event, it’s quite clear it’s the day before the passover in John: that’s why the Jewish leaders won’t go into the Praetorium for Jesus’ trial, as explicitly stated.

  9. Avatar
    ftbond  June 11, 2019

    I know Christians that don’t have “the wall” mentality. I myself am a believer in the bodily-risen Jesus Christ, but, I don’t have any particular emotional attachments on the Gospels, nor any particular “need” for any of them as any kind of basis for my belief that Jesus was, historically, resurrected. I’ve said it before, but, I believe in Jesus’ historical, bodily resurrection almost in *spite* of the Gospels.

    Of course, I know plenty of Christians like Dr Firth, with “the wall” mentality. But, I surely do know plenty of atheists and agnostics that have the same “wall” mentality. Just like I see plenty of Democrats with it, and, likewise Republicans (when it comes to discussing politics).

    I don’t think that mentality is *caused by* a belief, one way or the other. I suspect strongly that a person like that sort of “applies” that same mentality to most every aspect of their lives, in some fashion. It’s a way of feeling some kind of “security”, I suppose, or maybe some kind of “control”, or “predictability” or something. But, in any case, I suspect it’s brain-wiring.

    • Bart
      Bart  June 11, 2019

      I completely agree. The Christians I run around with absolutely don’t have the wall mentality; and many of the atheists I refuse to run around with do!

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