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Why He Is Still a Christian (And a Biblical Scholar): A Blast From the Past

The past two days I have been giving lectures at Michigan State University.  It’s been great.  I’ve had a number of people ask me after my talks if it is possible to be a Christian and still hold the historical views I do.  My answer — as many on the blog will know — is OF COURSE!  And that has prompted me to want to repost this guest-post from my historian/Christian friend Jeff Siker, posted exactly four years ago today.   Here (over the course of two posts) he explains a bit about his faith journey and how he has held on to his faith despite his knowledge of biblical criticism.  I’ll post part 2 tomorrow:

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Jeffrey Siker is an ordained Presbyterian minister and New Testament scholar. Jeff is senior professor of New Testament at Loyola Marymount University. He and I have been friends for over thirty years; he was two years behind me in my PhD program at Princeton Theological Seminary. I have asked him to explain why he is still a Christian, even though he knows and agrees with most of what I think, from a historical perspective, about the New Testament. I have cut his answer into two parts to make them fit the format of the blog. Part 2, where he gets most directly to the question, will be in tomorrow’s post. He, and I, welcome any feedback (which, of course, can be more informed after tomorrow’s post). The following are his words:

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When I first went to Princeton Theological Seminary to begin the Ph.D. program there in New Testament Studies, one of the first individuals I met in the graduate study room was Bart Ehrman.  (This was back in 1983.)  There were several long tables with chairs in the room, and each graduate student had managed to commandeer an end of one of the tables, marked by various piles of books and coffee cups.  Bart had his own stack of books and 3 x 5 note cards as he was busy collating (collecting and comparing) the Gospel citations from the 4th century theologian Didymus the Blind (Bart’s first published book).  I remember asking him what it meant for a blind man to use a particular version of the Gospel text.  His response was something like, “Good question!”  And we’ve been friends ever since!  He regularly whipped me in racquetball (and I mean whipped), and we spent many long evenings playing backgammon, smoking a cigar or two, and talking NT and theology, among other things.  At the time he was working part-time pastoring a Baptist church in the Princeton area.  His educational pedigree demonstrated a clear fundamentalist-conservative trajectory (Moody Bible Institute, Wheaton College, then Princeton Seminary for his M.Div. and finally his Ph.D. in text criticism with Prof. Bruce Metzger, the most important and prolific text critic of the time; and Bart was his prized student).  Despite his very conservative background, he was open to all kinds of questions and issues, and he had clearly moved significantly away from his most fundamentalist days that had included the assertion of biblical inerrancy.  His understanding of the Bible had developed a critical edge, which often happens to individuals with conservative theological roots.

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Jeff Siker Part 2: Why I am a Christian (and yet a New Testament scholar): A Blast From the Past
Printing Errors in the King James Version

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Comments

  1. Jessie  January 27, 2017

    Sorry if this is off topic: Will the MSU lectures be available online? I am disappointed to have missed the Phi Beta Kappa lecture.

    Thank you.

    J. Donner




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  2. Tony  January 27, 2017

    The Bible is a very human book of what? Our earliest commenter Paul claims that he received detailed information through appearances from the Lord Jesus. Is that the basis of Christianity? Earlier, I responded to a comment on a posting dated January 11th. That comment contained a listing of points ostensibly proving the historicity of Paul’s Jesus. I think it’s important to show a similar list with the some of the arguments for a completely different Jesus – the mythical celestial Jesus of Paul and his followers.

    1. Paul’s letters show no knowledge of an earthly Jesus of Nazareth. References to the imminent arrival of a celestial Jesus Christ – the Lord, are always, and only, in future tense. He is to come, to arrive etc. Nowhere does Paul state that Jesus will return, come again, or gives any other indication of an earlier earthly residence of Jesus Christ;

    2. Nowhere does Paul state where, or when, the death and resurrection of Jesus took place;

    3. None of the Jerusalem Church members Cephas (Peter), John and James, or anyone else, are ever identified as followers (disciples) of an earthly Jesus;

    4. Paul never identifies Jesus Christ as a preacher, teacher, or a leader of any Palestinian religious movement;

    5. Nowhere are Paul’s “the twelve” from 1 Cor. 15:5 identified as disciples. That misplaced notion comes from reading the Gospels into Paul’s letters. Peter (Cephas) was not part of the twelve;

    6. Paul does not identify where, or when, the bread and wine ceremony in 1 Cor 11:23-26 took place – or whether it even occurred on earth, Paul claims he received his information about the ceremony through a vision from Jesus;

    7. Paul states that his knowledge about Jesus Christ came through direct revelation from Jesus Christ and scripture only – and not from any person. Gal. 1:11-12 and Rom.16:25-26;

    8. There is no evidence that other apostles obtained their knowledge about Jesus Christ by means other than revelations and scripture as in 1 Cor. 15: 3-8;

    9. Paul describes Jesus’ crucifixion in Gal 3:13 as having been hung from tree. The scripture reference is to Deut. 21:22-23. The OT verses deal with the postmortem display of executed criminals and not the Roman execution method. “Hanged from a tree” in Greek will be translated as “crucifixion”;

    10. In 1 Cor 2:6-10 Paul tells us who killed Jesus – without specifying a time or location. Jesus was “crucified” (see 9) by the “rulers of this age” (archonton tou aionos toutou). By using the term “rulers of this age” Paul refers to the supernatural powers of Satan and his demons who live in in the firmament, and not to earthly authorities. Apparently, these supernatural powers were ignorant and mistakenly killed Jesus – and by doing so are doomed to perish;

    11. Elsewhere, in Romans 13:1- 4, Paul states that earthly authorities are servants of God who can do no wrong. Good conduct need not fear, but wrongdoers will be punished by God servants. Here Paul contradicts the Gospel’s claims that Jesus was not guilty of a crime, and unjustly executed. Another indication that Paul Jesus Christ is not the Jesus of Nazareth of the Gospels;

    12. In Rom. 8:22-23 Paul promises his followers adoption by God. Consequently, in Rom 8:29 God’s firstborn Jesus will be surrounded by many (adopted) brothers. They are, “the brothers of the Lord”;

    13. A key part of Paul’s belief was a soon to come end-times cosmic battle when Satan, his Demons and death, are defeated and subjugated by the celestial Christ. Since Christ had assumed human form in the firmament, his sacrifice nullified death introduced by the disobedience of Adam. 1 Cor. 15:20-27;

    14. The late first century manuscript, “The Ascension of Isaiah”, describes the crucifixion, (hung from a tree), and resurrection of a celestial Jesus in Satan’s world. It fits Paul’s Jesus story well. On the other hand, The Pauline narratives remain a difficult fit for an historical Jesus.




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    • talmoore
      talmoore  January 29, 2017

      Uh oh, the blog has been infested with Mythicists!




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      • dragonfly  January 29, 2017

        I think *one* hardly amounts to an infestation.




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    • mjkhan  January 29, 2017

      As a Muslim what I find difficult to believe that Jesus(pbuh) who is the founder of his faith called Christianity has this man Paul who is a bounty hunter on followers of christ in his life yet after his leaving the sene,claims he got a vision and got so much into and around his disciples that he is able to change much of the teaching of Jesus even annulling it.I clearly see that the enemy of Jesus who did everything to bring this end to him also implanted a man after him to change his teachings and he was Paul.One important point to note is that though Jesus taught in Aramaic and many churches took notes of his teachings in Aramaic,yet we don’t find original gospel in Aramaic.Probably the persecution of Aramaic speaking people was started so aggressively that no one claimed that he has the gospel in Aramaic and the tribes who spoke Aramaic moved to Syria where you can still find them.Quran says Jesus was given” Injeel” but we don’t find it anywhere.The purpose and effect of Paul was to destroy the teachings of Jesus of monotheism and importance of good deeds.I wonder why the scholars of Bible don’t ponder on theis possible sequence of events?




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      • webattorney  January 31, 2017

        People often change their belief after seeing or hearing some supposedly supernatural event. Didn’t that happen to Prophet Muhammad, i.e., hearing a voice or command in the silence of mountains? Also, it’s often a violent critic/persecutor of some belief who suddenly changes after a strong experience. I just find it interesting that Paul/Saul who had the biggest impact on Christianity was not one of his 12 disciples. Is it reasonable to imagine without Paul, Christianity would be a dead religion?




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    • Rogers  February 19, 2017

      Bart, many of your blog posting from when you debated Mythicist Robert Price go into the matters touched on in this list. Is kind of tough to refer a person to a collection of such, though.

      If you ever run out of book ideas (yeah, not likely, I know), a single book that deals on the precise subject of Mythicist arguments vs. historical criticism would be kind of useful. Well, then we’d just be able to point folks to that, as in first check your arguments against that.

      Oh well, just day dreaming




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  3. talmoore
    talmoore  January 27, 2017

    Dr. Ehrman, I’m endlessly fascinated by people’s religious life experience, probably because I’ve never really had one myself. My mother is an Israeli Jew and my father is an American Catholic. But I didn’t grow up with my father, and my mother isn’t especially religious (though my mother’s family is a mix of orthodox and conservative, with a strong connection to Chabad). Therefore, I never truly grew up with a particular religious identity. Culturally, I’m Jewish, but spiritually, I’m not. As a child I pretty much took the existence of God for granted, but once I hit middle school I discovered science, and from then on religion, in general, looked to me like a mental illness. (No offense to believers. I was a smug science nerd at the time. You know the type.)

    Then, in my 20s, I took a deep dive into philosophy, and I was suprised to discover that a huge part of the philosophical discipline deals with the nature of God, souls, divine justice, etc (i.e. Metaphysics). That’s when I took an interest in religion again, but as an outsider looking in via philosophical inquiry, like an anthropologist. I read Plato, Aristotle, Spinoza, DesCartes, Nietzsche, and many, many other philosophers, always seeking what might be called a Grand Unified Theory of religion, philosophy and science (similar to the Grand Unified Theory of physics that physicists strive for). At one point, I entertained pantheism, considering the possibility that a Spinozan God — an underlying unique substance with infinite attributes — may be behind everything. But that was short lived. If anything, after almost 30 years of investigation, my atheism is even stronger now than it was when I was in middle school.

    That’s what I mean when I say didn’t really have a religious life experience. For the vast majority of my time on earth, I’ve been an outsider looking in on this strange, almost desperate need by human beings for a “higher power”. When I look up at the sky, I don’t imagine a higher power. Unless, by higher power, one is referring to the gargantuan nuclear reactor in the middle of the solar system that we all orbit around. I consider that a higher power.




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    • mjkhan  January 29, 2017

      Talmore,
      There are two things that I request you think upon.
      One is If there was no God(the creator and maintainer of this universe)world would have much earlier come to an end.Human race was bad enough to have killed ech other,WWI,WWII,and all the wars that go on are a proof.This planet would have been full of jungles and the wind blowing though it day and night.
      Second point is If there is no accountability then the purpose of creation of man is senseless.This accountability,is self restraint,self control,fear of being asked questions that forces a man to share,to be kind on others and thus live with spirituality.
      Then this is the question I have to smart and intelligent people like you and other atheists.,that If by looking at your religion you come to this conclusion that because of its inability to answer all questions,or its contradiction with reasoning and wisdom there is no God.Shouldn’t you impartially study other faiths,eg,Islam.The only faith whose divine book is unchanged,original since the time it was written,same in all countries,in all times,with all sects,no revised editions at all?What that it can answer those questions the lack of reply to those led you leave faith entirely and with it concept of GOD?




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      • talmoore
        talmoore  January 30, 2017

        mjkhan, so you’re saying a world without a God would be a nightmare full of death and destruction, but the current world with a God is less of a nightmare with only some death and destruction. I’m afraid I don’t find that argument compelling.




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        • mjkhan  January 31, 2017

          Yes if there was no God world would never have come this far,All the civilizations that went to top eventually came down,like Mongol empire,then Egyptian empire,then Roman empire ,then Persian empire than recently British empire,etc.In the past without any means of mass communications it was possible that human race could have been wiped off due to mutual killing one area at a time.Today there is killing going on also because the world is not paradise(heaven)where Adam was to live but then came down to earth and now lives with trials and tribulations.This may be punishment for some and test for others.This is what the divine books say anyway.Especially Quran talks about previous civilizations and cultures which were destroyed and now their remains remind us of the forevernes of the creator not the creation.




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    • dragonfly  January 30, 2017

      I grew up going to a Christian church. I tried to convince myself that I could feel what other Christians seemed to be able to feel. The presence of God, Jesus, the holy spirit, whatever. But the truth is… there was nothing there.




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      • webattorney  January 31, 2017

        Yeah, same here. I felt more in tune with the epiphanies of the Portrait of a Young Man As An Artist. I found I wanted to love the Humanity and everyone; found out I couldn’t even though I call myself a Humanist.




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  4. RonaldTaska  January 28, 2017

    I remember Dr. Siker’s helpful blogs quite well as well as his willingness to answer subsequent questions. I have tried very hard to stay a Christian, despite my increased understanding of the difficult historical issues, but it has not worked out as well as I would have liked. I would certainly like to hear more of Dr. Siker’s views and other similar views. The best that I have been able to do is to call myself a 25th chapter of Matthew Christian with it’s emphasis in the parable of “the sheep and the goats” on helping others. That’s the best I can do at this time. The rest just does not make sense to me and separating the theological from the historical (non-overlapping magisteria) also makes no sense to me since the historical has to serve as the foundation for the theological, If the historical is not there for a sufficient foundation, then the theological, in my opinion, is just wishful thinking, “alternative facts.”




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    • mjkhan  January 29, 2017

      MOses taught and people deviated,Jesus came to carry on this message and people are following what he didin’t teach(he didn’t teach trinity,nor he taught concept of saved people)The Muhammad came he carried over the message of Jesus.Read Quran and see if it is the word of GOd?Does it appeal your intellect?




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    • dragonfly  January 30, 2017

      I’m sorry, I’m afraid the moral of the sheep and goats story is not really unique to Christianity. I think you might be hanging on by a rather thin thread.




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  5. Judith  January 28, 2017

    Dr. Ehrman,

    Did you indeed feel betrayed by the church after learning “historical critical approaches to the Bible”? Because if you did, I want to know if it took a long time to become reconciled again. I’m going through something similar. Having tried to live the scriptures and bringing up my sons to do the same, it’s infuriating to now know all your blog, books and debates have taught me.




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    • Bart
      Bart  January 29, 2017

      No, I wouldn’t say I felt betrayed — mainly because I don’t think my teachers actually knew any better. I never thought they were trying to deceive me. But I did, afterward, begin to feel more enlightened!




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  6. Wilusa  January 28, 2017

    I find it hard to understand people growing up with such enthusiasm for religion. When not even being prompted by parents…

    When I was a child, something puzzled me. I understood why we kids went to Mass on Sunday: because adults were forcing us to. What I couldn’t understand was why adults went to church, when no one was forcing them! I couldn’t imagine anyone doing such a thing voluntarily. I guess I finally realized they did it because it was a “mortal sin” not to.

    And get this. I grew up in St. Francis de Sales Parish, attended St. Francis de Sales Elementary School. It occurred to me a year or so ago that I had no idea who “St. Francis de Sales” was! I’d never been told, never thought of asking.

    I’ll be eager to read tomorrow’s post. I suspect that in general, people’s remaining Christian after learning the facts about the religion’s origin depends on whether they’ve had positive or negative experiences with it. And you, Bart, are an exception…moving away from it despite feeling you were losing something you’d cherished.




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  7. Wilusa  January 28, 2017

    By the way, what were the topics of your lectures at Michigan State?




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    • Bart
      Bart  January 29, 2017

      My public lecture was “Did the Early Christians Forget Jesus?” It was about how memory studies can be applied to the Gospel accounts of the death of Jesus. I also lectured on early Christian Gnosticism and on Misquoting Jesus.




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  8. Tempo1936  January 28, 2017

    Why wouldn’t an incredibly important and easily verified religious event mentioned In Mark as the tearing of the curtain in the holy of holy’s be documented By Josephus and other independent sources. I think this supports a later date for Mark written after the destruction of Jerusalem by Someone living in a foreign country who Knew No one could dispute or verify the claim. It’s amazing fundamentalist except every word written as absolute truth.




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  9. Eskil  January 29, 2017

    Is this more of an issue for Protestants than Catholics and Orthodox?
    I think that the historical criticism seriously questions the “sola scriptura” principle.
    Tradition clearly plays a larger role in Christianity to what Protestants want to believe.




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