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Why Do I Devote Myself to Studying the Bible?

QUESTION:   The one thing that I do not understand about you is that you have stated you have lost your faith. That being said, how do you continue to work in your field? Have you ever wanted to redirect your academic career to study other subjects?

RESPONSE:  I get this question a lot.  On one level I understand it: if I don’t believe in the Bible, why would I dedicate my life to studying it, researching about it, writing about it, and teaching about it?   From the perspective of someone who has strong feelings about the Bible – for example, as a believer who holds that the Bible is the word of God or as an atheist who thinks the Bible is the root of all kinds of evil – it may seem like a mystery that someone in my boat would be interested in spending such an enormous amount of time and effort in studying it.   Or from the perspective of someone who is completely apathetic about the Bible: why would you bother?

But from another perspective the question always puzzles me.

That’s because of the context within which I live, move, and have my being: the research university.   If I were teaching at a seminary or divinity school, training future ministers, the question would make sense: then I’d be teaching students whose ministry was in some sense rooted in the biblical traditions as normative texts for what to believe and how to behave.  If I were an agnostic in that context (there are some!) then it would be a bit strange (but not impossible to imagine; but that’s another discussion).   But I’m not in that context.  I’m not engaged in this kind of work in a church, or a Christian education program, or a believing community of any kind, or a seminary or divinity school.  I engage in it in a secular research university.

The context makes all the difference.   At a tier-one university, established scholars in all sorts of fields engage in teaching, research, and writing – in the hard sciences (as opposed to the easy ones, I suppose), the social sciences, and the arts and humanities.  They engage in this work because the topics they choose to work on are generally recognized, by people who know about such things, as being historically, culturally, politically, economically, socially, or scientifically important.  In this context, people teach and research all *sorts* of things they don’t “believe” in.

My wife is an expert, among many other things, in Chaucer.   She doesn’t “believe” in Chaucer, although she loves the texts and finds them personally important.   There are professors in the university who teach the history of communism; most of them are not communists.  Others teach the philosophy of Plato; they are not necessarily Platonists.  Others teach the history of 20th century Germany; they aren’t Nazis.  Others teach criminology; they aren’t necessary mass murderers.

I teach religious studies.  It doesn’t mean I’m religious.  And there’s no reason that should be any weirder than the fact that a professor of Greek classics is not a pagan.   Even within Religious Studies it is widely the case that experts of one field or another do not practice the religion.   That’s because we do not teach religion in the sense that we are trying to convince people that the religion is “true” or that it ought to be “adopted.”  We’re not interested in converting people, but in teaching them.  And so a scholar of Buddhism is not necessarily Buddhist (the ones I know aren’t); a scholar of American fundamentalism is not necessarily an American fundamentalist (one of my colleagues in that field at UNC is an Israeli Jew); a scholar of the history of Catholicism is not necessarily Roman Catholic (another colleague of mine in that field is, again, somewhat oddly, another Israeli Jew); scholars of Islam are not necessarily Muslim (neither of my colleagues in that field are); etc etc.

So too with biblical studies.  Scholars of the Bible are not necessarily believers in the Bible.  Now, I have to admit, that historically, most biblical scholars in America have been (and still are) practicing Christians.   Some few New Testament scholars are practicing Jews.  And some few – like me – are none of the above.   I think the reason so many scholars in this particular field have a personal attachment to it has to do with the nature of our society:  people who really get into the Bible when they’re young usually get into it for personal religious, rather than academic, reasons.  That was certainly the case for me.   I didn’t become an agnostic until long after I had studied and revered the Bible as a hard-core Christian.   But once I became an agnostic I didn’t lose my interest in the Bible.  It’s just that the reasons for my interest radically shifted – shifted to what the reasons would have been had I been an agnostic in college and took a class on the Bible and gotten hooked then.

The reasons for being interested in studying the Bible are pretty much the same as the reasons for being interested in studying Chaucer, or Plato, or Latin classics, or modern German history, or medieval Japan, or most anything else.   These are all important topics – historically, culturally, socially, politically, and so on – and are, in themselves, endlessly fascinating.

In our world, the Bible is especially important and interesting.  When it comes to importance, there’s no other book that can come *close* to the Bible for its influence on Western civilization in virtually all of its aspects.    How can someone interested in books not be interested in the Bible?  Moreover, far and away the most important and influential institution in the history of the West is the Christian church.  Who shouldn’t be interested in how it all started?  And no figure in history is more important and influential than Jesus of Nazareth.   Who shouldn’t want to know everything possible about him and the religion built on him?

And so back to the question: I understand how,  on one level, it may seem strange that someone who did not believe in the Bible would devote his life to researching and teaching the Bible; but on another level, it doesn’t seem strange at all.   It is a bona fide academic subject.   I refuse to yield the field of biblical studies to fundamentalists who want to thump the Bible.   The field belongs just as much – if not more —  to secular historians and literary scholars who are intent on coming to an educated understanding of this most important book and its historical and literary significance.

 

 


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Comments

  1. Avatar
    Tom  December 13, 2014

    Are there differences between seminaries and divinity schools, or does that depend on who you ask?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 15, 2014

      A seminary is a free-standing independent institution; a divinity school is a professional school that is part of a university (like the law school and the medical school). Their missions and curricula are not different.

  2. Avatar
    Wilusa  December 13, 2014

    What I’ve sometimes found myself wondering is whether your field should really be a branch of the History Department (or whatever term UNC uses), rather than being called “Religious Studies.”

    And I don’t find it strange that you’ve maintained your interest in the field despite having become an agnostic. But I *do* doubt that you would have gravitated to it if you’d been an agnostic – or a nominal “Christian” who felt trapped in a religion he found loathsome – in your college days.

    • Bart
      Bart  December 15, 2014

      The problem is that not everyone who teaches in Religoius Studies is a historian. Many are social scientists (e.g., anthropologists), or literary scholars, or philosophers. It’s a truly interdisciplinary discipline.

      • Avatar
        Mhamed Errifi  December 26, 2014

        You said scholars of Islam are not necessarily Muslim . if you mean in the west maybe but in the east all scholars of islam are not only muslims by faith but they are also world authority on 7 century arabic . what you call scholar of islam by western standard are not recognised in muslim world as such

  3. Avatar
    Wijting  December 13, 2014

    Dear Dr. Ehrman,

    One of the major issues when it comes to the bible is the decision to read it as either unique revelation or ancient literature or perhaps a bit of both. Because of the assumptions embedded in the bible or the koran or any purported “divine” book, it behooves the reader it make decisions about such embedded assumptions.

    However, the scholar of Chaucer, Shakespeare or Homer is not faced with such a dilemma . I’ve yet to hear of a Homer scholar bemoan he’s losing sleep because the Illiad is appearing less and less divine (not that it ever assumed such properties).

    However, with the bible, well there’s a hell of a lot more to lose. Unless you’ve arrived at the agnostic position that writes off prior beliefs about the bible as nothing more than pious imagination.

    So my point is that literature in general has different assumptions than those of a religious bent. Egypitian, Jewish or Christian mention of God/gods actually imply belief that such exists. Whereas other literature is not that concerned with literal belief in a God/gods but may use them as literary devices.

    Best,

    Yuri

    • Bart
      Bart  December 15, 2014

      I don’t think there *are* assumptions built into the Bible that it is in the inspired word of God, at least no more so than for any other religious text from antiquity.

  4. Avatar
    doug  December 13, 2014

    I don’t believe in God (I’m a secular humanist). But I find the study of Jesus and early Christianity to be fascinating. That is probably so, in part, because I grew up as a strong believer in Christianity. Also, Jesus is arguably the most famous and (indirectly) influential person who ever lived. And I find knowledge (as opposed to dogma) about Jesus important because so many people use him to try to justify questionable actions and beliefs.

  5. Avatar
    Jana  December 13, 2014

    During my freshman year at University, I took a class in “Bible as Literature” … it was in some ways life changing when I realized that analytics could and should be applied to all texts especially religious.

  6. Avatar
    cwspeaks  December 13, 2014

    I remember when I learned that my undergrad professor, Dr. Derek Krueger (with whom I’m fairly certain you’re quite familiar), was Jewish. At the time, with my horizons still narrowed by adolescence, I couldn’t quite figure how a Jew could teach courses on historic Christianity and remain unconverted! Afterwards and with much more study of my own, I can understand how.

  7. Avatar
    Jason  December 14, 2014

    “Others teach criminology; they aren’t necessary mass murderers.”

    That you know of-maybe their research makes them capable of being the most successful mass murderers of all time (outside of the Oval Office that is…)

    In any case, I work for a University Research Institute and am fascinated by the variety of things that qualify as research-especially in the context of textual criticism. The Bible hasn’t changed (much) in about 400 years and there’s at least a hundred years or so of textual criticism on the books-how do you come up with ideas for new directions to explore in the field? Is it mostly fringe texts and variant manuscripts now or are scholars still finding new insights from the canon?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 15, 2014

      Well, my book The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture helped change how the field of study even went about doing its work — what kinds of quesitons it was interested in and what sorts of subjects it explored.

  8. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  December 14, 2014

    Amen!

  9. Avatar
    Forrest  December 14, 2014

    Bart,
    Thank you for your continued commitment to the study of the most important book in Western culture. Who knows what or where we would be if this were left to “believers” only. I recently had an interesting experience while Christmas shopping for a new Bible for my wife. (That’s what she wants.) As I went through a religious bookstore, I read that certain individuals (usually evangelicals) didn’t like certain versions because it did’t present “Christian” beliefs properly. Instead of letting the text itself guide the discussion, they want to have their theological/philosophical perspectives imposed on the document. Who knows where that rabbit hole would lead us?

  10. Avatar
    Jim  December 14, 2014

    Great question & an awesome answer with a succinct conclusion of ” I refuse to yield the field of biblical studies to fundamentalists who want to thump the Bible.”
    A breath of fresh air to Biblical Studies.

  11. Avatar
    Colin P  December 14, 2014

    To follow on from your previous post Bart I am very grateful 🙂 that you are there producing the books you do despite your lack of Christian faith. I totally agree with your stance that study of early Christianity should not be the preserve of Christians. As an agnostic it fascinates me. It’s got everything – history, psychology, religion, philosophy, drama. One thing I really struggle with when reading the subject is the potential bias of some christian authors. After all, if they believe some of the dogmas of Christianity, how can it fail to influence their interpretation and account of christian history. It is so good to have your view on things as a counterpoint. I wish there were more like you!

  12. Goat
    Goat  December 15, 2014

    Professor Ehrman,
    Equally as I am jealous of my fellow parishioners’ faith, I admire the depth of your passion for your studies. The comparison that you make to the interest that other scholars display for their areas of expertise does not do it justice. The passion which you exhibit for your field of study does not appear to be coicidental. Your example is very inspiring, even if it directs my attention to challenges that wish I could ignore.

  13. Avatar
    dragonfly  December 15, 2014

    I find this stuff really interesting, so much I’m willing to pay money to be on this blog. And I would say I’m an agnostic. But not about Christianity. I don’t believe in a God that thinks it’s a good laugh to see if he can get Abraham to kill his own son for no reason. And I don’t believe in a God that thinks eternal torture is the appropriate punishment for the heinous crime of simply being born. But lots of people do and that makes it interesting. So I find the question a bit puzzling too.

  14. Avatar
    simonelli  December 15, 2014

    You said; ” I engage in it in a secular research university.” You can discuss any men made subject that you like without incurring the wrath of God. However in this case you are discussing the Word of God; therefore, you are plying with fire, for unless you are able to handle it accurately, you will eventually bring offence to God and to His Son Jesus Christ. Some sins are judged in this life, others are judged after this life.

    • Avatar
      mjordan20149  December 15, 2014

      It might be a good idea to get Dr. Ehrman to discuss “hell” in the context of the New Testament sometime (although I’m sure I can find discussions of “hell” elsewhere on this blog. I don’t think that there is much organized theological discussion of hell in the New Testament. My understanding is that there are three greek words that are translated as “hell,” and that none of them have much to do with the eternal damnation that the church eventually espoused. Gehenna is a burning trash dump outside Jerusalem. Hades is the place of the dead in Greek mythology. Tartarus (only used one time in “Paul”s” letter to Titus, I believe, was a place of exile for the defeated Titans, again in Greek mythology. So, in my view, hell is an invention of the early church that became a place of eternal torment during the middle ages.

      • Bart
        Bart  December 16, 2014

        I deal with this issue in my book Jesus Interrupted. But you’re right, it would be a good blog post. I’ll add it to the list.

    • Avatar
      alandiehl  December 16, 2014

      Take some time to read Dr. Ehrman’s writings. You will quickly realize the Bible could not possibly the words of a God or gods. On second thought, just read the Bible…that should bring you to the same conclusion.

  15. Avatar
    Jana  December 22, 2014

    Given how unreliable I’m learning that the Gospels are … I want to tell you another personal story … when my still best girlfriend of 40 some years was young .. well we both were very young … she decided to live her daily life according to her astrological chart. She knew the time and date and of course the year and after a detailed reading faithfully for at least a year lived according to her chart’s revelations. It was only later during a visit with her late mother in upstate NY that she learned (they were Italian immigrants) that both her birth day and time had been copied wrong on her birth certificate. My friend is now the Mother Superior of a Trappist Catholic monastery. (I find this funny if not charming/I hope you do too)

  16. Avatar
    @manx  March 31, 2015

    Personally i find the whole subject simply fascinating. Having been brought up in the Catholic school system and receiving my RE lessons from Jesuit Priests to been dragged “kicking and screaming” as a 13 year old by my mother into the Pentecostal system to my now Atheist position … It is still a subject i enjoy reading and discussing.
    So a big thank you to yourself for the great reading and viewpoints you offer. @manx

  17. Avatar
    Adam0685  February 20, 2017

    Apart from communicating scholarship on the New Testament, historical Jesus, and early Christianity in an interesting way to a general audience, it appears to me that an underlying theme of your trade books is showing the importance of being knowledgeable about the early Christianity, the New Testament, and the historical Jesus from a historical perspective (and how to study these things from a historical perspective) regardless whether one is a believer or not–for understanding how it has shaped/transformed culture, economics, law, politics, etc.

    Related to this blog post, I know you do not write on or teach theology but I thought of your work when I read “Study Theology, Even If You Don’t Believe in God” in the Atlantic (https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2013/10/study-theology-even-if-you-dont-believe-in-god/280999). A major theme of your trade books appears to be “Study the Historical Jesus (or New Testament or Early Christianity, Even If You Don’t Believe in God).

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