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Why Do Smart People Make Stupid Arguments?

I’m always puzzled about why smart people make (and believe) such stupid arguments.  We see this all the time, of course, in political discourse and family disagreements, not to mention department meetings, but since my field is religious studies I hear it the most in connection with the great religions of the world.  Actually, I guess I find it less puzzling than aggravating.

A lot of conservative Christians get upset with me when I push them for evidence for their views, and so I thought I should devote this post to give equal share time to other religions whose self-appointed representatives send me proofs of the superiority of their views, based on hard “evidence.”   It is really difficult to believe that someone can actually be persuaded by these claims.  Let me stress, I am NOT (repeat NOT) saying anything negative about any of these religions – in this case Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism.  I’m decidedly not.  I’m saying something negative about very bad arguments used to “prove” their inherent superiority to one another.

I will talk about two emails I have received, one in today’s and one in tomorrow’s.  Today’s came from a Muslim.  If I had a nickel for every time a Muslim has written me with this same basic argument over the past three years, I could renovate my kitchen.   I preface this by saying I have the utmost respect for Islam – truly and deeply; and for the Qur’an.  Muslims and Islam itself are obviously getting horrible press these days ij the world most of us inhabit, but almost entirely by people who don’t know the first thing about it.  I’m not going to go there – even when you beg me to – because this blog is about the New Testament and the origins of Christianity, centuries *prior* to Islam.  But whatever you think about Islam and the fantastic numbers of people committed to it, this particular (common) argument for its superiority is not, well, thoughtful.  Here’s the email:

Would you like to see the rest of this post?  It’s a hot one.  And not hard to access.  Just join the blog.  It costs all of about 50 cents a week, and every cent goes to charity.  So what’s to lose?  Except for stupid arguments!

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Rapid Fire Questions and Answers on Biblical Manuscripts



  1. Avatar
    toejam  February 10, 2020

    Hey Dr. Ehrman. I have just finished reading Bruce Chilton’s recent article “The Chimeric Empty Tomb” in JSHJ(17). I must say I’m very confused on the following aspect of it: On p.157-158, Chilton suggests the Gospel of Mark does not explicitly describe an “empty tomb”. Chilton points out that there is a textual variant in 16:5 over whether the women went *into* the tomb or only *toward* it. Chilton prefers the latter reading on the basis of the criterion of the ‘harder reading’. He follows: “There is no statement in Mark […] of the women’s proceeding into the cave past the entrance and to the ledge where a corpse would be placed in a burial cave”. But doesn’t the young man’s statement in the very next verse make it clear that they are inside the tomb?: “[Jesus] is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him”. Chilton doesn’t describe any textual variant here. So it seems to me his argument relies on a shaky textual variant and an assumption that the young man’s “Look, there is the place they laid him” must be outside of the tomb? Am I missing something, or is Chilton’s argument here rather unconvincing? Any further thoughts on Chilton’s views on the Resurrection narratives?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 10, 2020

      I haven’t read the article, but as you describe it, it sounds very strange indeed. The young man explicitly says that the body they are looking for isn’t there, that Jesus has been raised.

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    GeoffClifton  February 10, 2020

    I would be interested to know more about textual criticism in Koranic studies. I would be very surprised if there weren’t at least some scribal errors in medieval and earlier copies of the Koran – there were certainly some in Old Testament texts as the Dead Sea Scrolls have demonstrated. As an aside, the British historian, Tom Holland, referred (in one of his books) to a Saudi professor of early Islamic studies, who had insisted that only practising Muslims should be allowed to engage in such studies. Holland said that that was like saying that the only modern books on the Vikings should be written by people who still worshipped Thor and Odin.

  3. Avatar
    billw977  February 10, 2020

    Love the sarcasm in this post, and I’m not being sarcastic….

  4. Avatar
    GeoffClifton  February 11, 2020

    I did a bit of research on Koranic texts and, although it isn’t exactly shouted from the rooftops, they do seem prone to scribal errors, variant readings and all the other anomalies that we get with Christian texts or any other pre-printing press document you could name. The Koran: A Very Short Introduction by Michael Cook devotes a few pages to this topic.

  5. Avatar
    joemccarron  February 11, 2020

    I’m not sure if the Muslim was saying the Koran is a miracle due to it being preserved or just that it was a miracle itself. (I agree that yours is a very reasonable reading and I have heard other Muslims make that claim.) According to Islam, it wasn’t originally written at all, it was spoken.

    I do not agree that God acted in the world to preserve some perfect copy of the bible, but I do think God acts/acted in the world to guide us to live moral lives. And he does this in different ways for different people at different times. I think scripture is indeed part of that, as well as his church, and the law we have written on our hearts.

    Atheists often argue this argument is crazy because we don’t have exact copies of these texts and we don’t all have access to the same instructions. Like you say “It’s funny how those mysterious ways always benefit those of us living now, in certain parts of the world, speaking a particular language, with particular religious beliefs. Isn’t it just MARVELOUS? What a MIRACLE!”

    But this assume God must want us all to have exact same and detailed instructions for every moral situation. But that is obviously not the case and the insistence that this be how it must work seems very unreasonable. Paul and Luke both recognize we are given different understandings and God can accommodate that in his judgment. Jesus repeatedly demonstrates God’s plan is not to have some wooden detailed set of rules we follow in every situation.

    The copies of the new testament can vary. But few people can read the New Testament and somehow fail to understand our actions should be guided by love in service to others. Sure some atheists might *only* see Jesus as a failed apocalyptic profit, but if that is *all* they see they are putting on blinders to what makes Christianity compelling. Once you see love of others as a guiding principle you are on your way. Did God act in the world to make sure that was preserved? I certainly think he did. And “God acting in the world” is a miracle.

  6. Avatar
    mb71314  February 11, 2020

    This is more of a comment than a question, but: how much of intelligent people making stupid arguments is them actually rationalizing to find some way to their truth for some (albeit weak) basis versus them rationalizing a weak belief in order to maintain their social network credentials?

    For example, humans do and say things all the time in order to “fit into” their social network. One might watch football at the bar having not liked football or drinking in order to enjoy company of friends. Or one might rationalize their belief in God in order to avoid isolation or uncomfortable conversations from fellow believers (as well as still be able to be invited to friendly gatherings for themselves or their kids’ sake).

  7. Avatar
    AlaskaRoy  February 11, 2020

    “While the upper text is almost identical with the modern Qur’ans in use (with the exception of spelling variants), the lower text contains significant diversions from the standard text. For example, in sura 2, verse 87, the lower text has wa-qaffaynā ‘alā āthārihi whereas the standard text has wa-qaffaynā min ba’dihi. Such variants are similar to the ones reported for the Qur’an codices of Companions such as Ibn Mas’ud and Ubayy b. Ka’b. However, variants occur much more frequently in the Sana’a codex, which contains “by a rough estimate perhaps twenty-five times as many [as Ibn Mas’ud’s reported variants]”



  8. Avatar
    DEGlaze  February 11, 2020

    Being a Great Courses addict (you were my first “dealer”) I just finished Professor Oliver’s 12 lectures on the Quar’an. Great Courses generally bring on several “Aha moments”, and this one had many. These always always feel good (escape from stupidly?) and are also quite humbling for a septuagenarian (why was I so lazy not to learn more.earlier?).

    Anyway, spiritually I have been migrating toward a “pluralist/deist, God is everywhere and unknowable, Jeffersonian(?)“ view and, absent the Insidious dogma religious leaders are prone to inject, the Quar’an seems kind of cool. At least it seems to have a more cogent story than the Judeo Christian scriptures or the (OMG) complex guiding texts of the Hindus.

    Back to your post, the adage “you can’t cure stupid” seems apropos….but so does Jimmy V’s “don’t give up, never give up”.

    Looking forward to your new book….

  9. Avatar
    dennislk1  February 11, 2020

    Dr. Ehrman,

    I believe the short answer is that they are repeating what someone else told them. They believe that what they have been told is the truth because they believe the person who said it is an expert in such matters. Perhaps this is how it was for you when you were a younger man? This is how it was for me as a younger man. Therefore, to deflect stress as I go through life, I imagine it is someone dear to me or my younger self saying it or doing it. That slow car in front of me that can’t seem to make up its mind always has my mother behind the steering wheel.

    But the difference between myself and most people is that I have been chiseling constantly for a very long time on that block of granite that represents my religious and political opinions and thus I have rock hard opinions, which unfortunately causes me to be abraisive at times. But most people don’t care about the things I think about because their focus is on their lives and what happens in the 250 square miles of it whereas my eyes have always been looking into the distance trying to understand it all and to make sense of it all. But it has never felt like work to me because I am always thinking about something and my mind takes pleasure in it.

    Dennis Keister

  10. Avatar
    Sadfad  February 12, 2020

    Hi Bart,
    You said “Torah, which, through the Middle Ages, was every bit as good as the preservation of the Qur’an”.
    Could you please expand on the preservation of Torah or auggest keywords to read about in over the internet? Thanks

    • Bart
      Bart  February 14, 2020

      Look up Masoretes or Masoretic text or Jewish copying practices.

  11. Avatar
    rjackson@cscos.com  February 12, 2020

    Dr Ehrman I treasure your sense of humor. As a former Catholic who occasionally follows the church goings on for the pure humor of it, I am often amazed and exasperated by the way that in the face of organized corruption and child abuse millions of people from wealthy highly educated parts of the world still trot into mass on sundays and drop there money in the collection basket to see a man dress like a wizard and wave his hands around like harry potter to conjure bread and wine into what he expects people to believe are the meat and drippings of their god.

  12. Avatar
    Sadfad  February 15, 2020

    Thanks for the reply. Truly appreciate it.

  13. Avatar
    heisenberg  February 18, 2020

    Well, since the third caliph Uthman collected all copies of the Quran and had an ultimate version made, presumably destroying the others, this is a screaming evidence they were NOT in concordance with one another.

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