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Who Cares?

Several people – on the blog and off of it – have asked me about the broader significance of my research on the Patristic citations of the NT, specifically the quotations of the Gospels in the writings of Didymus.   Did this research contribute to my loss of faith?  Did it lead me away from evangelical Christianity?  Did it affect my understanding of any Christian doctrine – my view of God, my view of Christ, my view of salvation?  Did it affect my understanding of Scripture as the inspired Word of God?  Did it change anything that I thought about anything apart from the Patristic evidence for the text of the New Testament?

The answers are clear and straightforward:  no, no, no, no, and no!

The follow-up question (when asked; you possibly have the same question) has always been: why did you do it then?

My answer to *that* is also straightforward.  I did it because I’m a scholar who is committed to scholarship and who thinks scholarly research is important.  And this kind of textual scholarship is the kind of thing really serious scholars do!

Let me be the first to say (well, OK, I’m not the first to say this) that I know and acknowledge that some kinds of scholarship are virtually pointless and of no broader significance.   Some thirty years ago I was attending a textual criticism meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature (the annual professional meeting for scholars who teach and research biblical studies), and a scholar – here left unnamed – was reading a paper about a variant reading that I *think* (all these years later) was on the manuscripts of Matthew 10:10 in some obscure ancient language that I didn’t know at the time, and still don’t know.   The question had to do with what Jesus said when he indicated that his disciples should not take with them, on the mission that he was sending them out on, a “staff.”  In this other language, some manuscripts had one word for staff, but other manuscripts used a different word for staff.  And this scholar was trying to establish definitively which of these two words was the word originally used in this ancient version for staff.   His paper took twenty-five minutes.

Afterwards, during the question and answer period, I raised my hand – silly young graduate student that I was – and asked him what the difference in *meaning* was between the two words.  He replied that there was no difference.  They were synonyms.

I was completely dumbstruck.  Why would you put *that* much work into deciding which word was originally used if at the end of the day, the meaning was not changed a bit because both words meant precisely the same thing?   He thought I was an idiot not to see why it mattered.

But I didn’t and I don’t.

My work on Didymus the Blind was not like that.   In fact, it was important because it helped establish what the text of the NT looked like in Alexandria Egypt around the year 390 CE.  That matters because the Alexandrian text at that time was widely thought to represent the most faithful wording of the “original” text anywhere available.  If other studies were done on the Alexandrian text at other times (for example in the writings of Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Athanasius, and so on) then one could write a history of the Alexandrian text.  And if someone could do *that* then we would be well on our way toward a unifying theory that explained what the original text was and how it came to be modified over time.   And those things struck me at the time (and still strike me today) as significant.

But what does it have to do with my belief in God or in my understanding of the Christian faith or my views about the inspiration of the Bible?   Nothing really.  It has to do with *other* things, things that scholars are interested in because ultimately they matter for issues that *do* concern people more broadly (like knowing what the Gospels originally said).

Scholarship necessarily has to be built up from tiny little pieces into much larger wholes.  Once I became an expert on the manuscript tradition of the New Testament, I could begin to reflect on that tradition, and once I did that – which was possible in great depth only when I had plumbed the depths of scholarship at one small point – I began to rethink things – first my view of Scripture, then my view of Christ, then my view of the existence of God.

But there was nothing about my research on Didymus per se that led me to change any views I had.  Most of my friends who work in textual criticism (the manuscript tradition of the New Testament) have no problem agreeing with each and every point (and the evidence to support it) I make in my book on Didymus.   But they were not moved to change their theological views and most of them continue to be very strong and committed evangelical Christians.  Why shouldn’t they be?   Didymus’s quotations of the Gospel of Luke have no bearing on whether God exists, or if Jesus was his son, or if his death brought salvation, of even if the original writings of the NT were inspired.

I myself came to rethink things.  But I could have stayed exactly what I was, based on my study of Didymus.  I changed because of other factors and other considerations.   That does not invalidate the scholarship, though, or make it pointless or irrelevant.  It is relevant and it is important.  But not for matters of faith.   Faith (or non-faith) is not the only thing that is important!!


Back To School! My Jesus Syllabus
Conclusions Drawn from My Study of Didymus

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Comments

  1. cheito
    cheito  August 23, 2013

    Dr Ehrman God knows your heart and mind. He knows exactly WHY you’re an agnostic.
    I sincerely believe that all of us will meet Jesus. All our questions will be answered by HIm personally.
    I’m convinced of this because I believe without any doubts that God the Father is LOVE and that no one dies to him. I’m also convinced that Jesus is The Lord of Glory, the Son of the Living God.
    And I’m sure when you meet Him face to face, you’ll also then, again, believe in Him.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  August 24, 2013

      I agree that if I meet him face to face, I certainly will believe in him!!

      • cheito
        cheito  August 25, 2013

        AMEN DR Ehrman! AMEN!

      • Avatar
        webattorney  December 11, 2013

        Me too. Me too. I am a wishful agnostic. But I cannot throw out all my reasons based on my wish that there be a merciful God. However, one thing I am almost certain is that if there is God, that God will be very different from the way religions try to portray that God.

  2. Avatar
    raskel  August 24, 2013

    The question that always strikes me when reading your discussions of scholarship and faith is not whether your faith mattered to your scholarship or whether your scholarship mattered to your faith but whether your faith ever really mattered (which is NOT to deny that you had sincere faith)/ or whether is was just a fortunate opportunity that made it possible to encounter your true love.

  3. Avatar
    maxhirez  August 24, 2013

    Lets reverse the question: did where you where at in your journey from believer to non-believer color your work on Didymus or have an effect on your decision to take Metzger up on his suggestion to make him your subject?

  4. Avatar
    dennis  August 24, 2013

    I think that there are at least two issues here . The first being , are the reported words and actions of a failed itinerant Jewish preacher from 2,000 years ago worthy of serious scholarly effort and secondly , if they are , could that research pose a threat to Christian ” faith ” . I believe the answer to the second question actually determines the answer to the first . If by ” faith ‘ is meant a serious attempt to incorporate the moral vision of Jesus , much of it counter-intuitive , into one’s life , then a rigorous search for the objective historical facts concerning the formulation of that vision is certainly worthwhile . The religion of Jesus , rather than the religion about Jesus , would appear to be the goal of the ” active ” rather than the ” passive ” student . My own life journey has been such that the apparent core message of Jesus , losing one’s life ( egocentricity ) in order to find it ( kindly service to those about us ) , has been , for me , self validating . It is that self validation that forms the foundation for my ” faith ‘ and is thus impervious to the latest ” shocking revelation ” by Dan Brown et al . Thus the purported words and actions of that ancient preacher are worthy of having university departments devoted to their study . Absent real impact on life today , their study probably would be as much a waste of time and effort as that nameless ( and I congratulate you on your Christian charity in leaving him/her nameless ! ) presenter studying which synonym was used . Comment ?

  5. Avatar
    Adam0685  August 24, 2013

    Would you say that the majority who do serious new testament textualism today is done by evangelicals and/or those who tend to have more conservative Christian beliefs? Are there many on the liberal end that do serious work on textual criticism?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  August 24, 2013

      It is certainly done mainly by Christian scholars, and in this country, at least, the majority of them, in my judgment, are indeed conservative Christians.

  6. Avatar
    bamurray  August 25, 2013

    What’s your opinion of President Obama’s call for ratings of schools, based (in part) on the salaries that their graduates obtain? I worry that this could pose a threat to scholarship that isn’t directly profitable.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  August 25, 2013

      Yeah, good point. But *majoring* in a field doesn’t always mean *working* in that field. Religoius Studies majors, for example, often end up in business, law, medicine, or whatever. But it’d be a shame if schools that produce a lot of social workers were penalized for it!

  7. johndash
    johndash  August 25, 2013

    Dear Dr. Ehrman, Would you write a book on the Alexandrian and African influences on the development of Christianity? John Dash, Fairport, NY

  8. Avatar
    toddfrederick  August 26, 2013

    I’m a bit behind on reading your posts.

    Regarding this post….It is a bit difficult for me to understand doing scholarship, in any field, just for the sake of doing scholarship. It’s like hammering a nail in a piece of wood with no intent on building anything.

    I am goal oriented. When I do something I hope it will produce a result…in the case of religious scholarship (of any religion) I would hope that the studies will bring about a change in the person involved in such studies.
    …hopefully the changes will be positive and will be of a positive influence on some segment of humanity.

    I am not a “one way” person…that there is only one way to understand the infinite…but I do have priorities, these being the values of love, compassion, tolerance, happiness and so on…constructive rather than destructive objectives.

    From what I have read about you personally you seem to have difficulties similar to what I deal with daily…understanding the purpose of life and our place in the universe. Being finite, we will never know truth now, but I do think that such investigations as you do, with such passion, and such caring for your students and for us on your blog, that you are moving in a direction that can only affect you and the direction of your personal life in a positive way.

    We can not know the fullness of truth…the Mind of God…no matter how much study we do. In your case, we can not know why there is so much suffering in the world.

    I become discouraged and feel helpless and hopeless, but I look around and tell myself constantly that this can not be all that there is. There must be a spiritual dimension beyond what we see in our material world.

    I will not give up on this quest, knowing that I will never know all that I seek to understand in this life, but have the faith and determination to live life now, just for this moment in time, and do whatever I can to practice love and compassion to those around me.

    Thank you for listening.

  9. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  August 28, 2013

    Good post that explains a lot. Thanks.

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