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Why Would an Agnostic-Atheist Be A Bible Scholar??

Five years ago I received this question.  I still hear it!   And I would still answer it the same way.  A question that makes a lot of sense in one way actually doesn’t make a lot of sense looked at in another way.  I suppose a lot of our questions are like that….   Here is the question and response.


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 …

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The Case Against Miracles
Update on My Next Book: The Joys of Academic Writing



  1. Avatar
    gwayersdds  December 13, 2019

    Off topic but I wanted to wish you and your family a wonderful Christmas and a healthful and happy New Year.

  2. Avatar
    rivercrowman  December 13, 2019

    Thanks for re-posting this.

  3. Avatar
    joks  December 13, 2019

    Dr Ehrman,

    A question I have is about “confirmation bias”. Obviously, in your teaching, researching, debating, and life experiences you have come to very strong conclusions about Christianity and religions in general. How do you handle your own “confirmation bias” when you come across information that might contradict your beliefs?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 15, 2019

      I try to look at the evidence and decide if I find it persuasive. If you’ve been on the blog much, you’ll see that I change my mind about a lot of things when I see how the evidence goes! But no one can be perfectly objective!

  4. Avatar
    Fernando Peregrin Gutierrez  December 13, 2019

    There are questions that are very good; others, simply good; many are indifferent; and many more, stupid and dumb. And others that are so illegitimate, that don’t even deserve to be called questions.
    Dear friend Bart, I am sorry to tell you, but I think you do not need to apologize at all for being a great Bible scholar who does not believe, quite rightly in your favor, that the Bible it is the Word of the Judeo-Christian God, in case he existed

    Doubting that the Bible is a legitimate object of research and academic studies is typical of ignorant people in what it is and represents historically, sociologically, aesthetically and so many other subjects, the Bible and what is the academic research of texts that are as important as the so called Holy Scriptures.

  5. Avatar
    fishician  December 13, 2019

    Christian authors frequently write about other religions and even atheism, but then Christians object when people from other worldviews write about Christianity or the Bible. How odd. I suspect for some it springs from the belief that since Christianity is the only true religion, it therefore deserves special status and protection. For others perhaps it is an insecurity of having their house of cards examined by those who are not already committed to their belief system.

  6. Avatar
    meltuck  December 13, 2019

    Perhaps a related question could be “Why would anyone who still identifies as a committed Christian be interested in what Bart Ehrman has to say?” For me, it is because I no longer regard the Bible as a book with all the answers to the question of “how should we then live?”, but rather as a collection of writings that invites us into a conversation with God and other people that has been going on for millennia and will continue into the foreseeable future.

    • Bart
      Bart  December 15, 2019

      Maybe because scholarship matters? Most of the things I think about the Bible are what my Christian scholar friends think. Has little to do with me being an atheist-agnostic. This kind of stuff is what I learned in seminary!

  7. Avatar
    jwesenbe  December 13, 2019

    “the easy ones”, funny!

  8. Avatar
    santiago.torres3  December 13, 2019

    Prof. Ehrman,

    This is an eloquent answer to a question I, along with many others, have thought while reading your work. I’m currently reading Did Jesus Exist? Its interesting seeing you here take a different stance against a different antagonist (mythicists) from your usual work. Anyone who criticizes you as being against Christianity should read this book. I would have described myself as a militant atheist many years ago but you’ve helped me gain a greater critical appreciation for Christianity, The New Testament and religion in general. Thanks!

  9. NulliusInVerba
    NulliusInVerba  December 13, 2019

    Sort of off topic: how many personal copies of the NT do you own and, in terms of publication date, what is the oldest and most recent?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 15, 2019

      Ha! No idea. I have a couple from the 18th century. And the most recent is probalby 2018.

  10. Avatar
    forthfading  December 13, 2019

    Dr. Ehrman,

    Would a schloar applying at a secular university, such as UNC, for a professorship position be taken seriously if they were trained at a seminary or a divinity school? Would a schloar with a doctorate from Harvard Divinity School or Union Theological Seminary be seen as credible as someone from Harvard or Columbia?

    Thanks, Jay

    • Bart
      Bart  December 15, 2019

      It would depend completely on who they studied with, what they were interested in, what their research expertise was, and what their career goals were. I myself did a degree at Princeton Theological Seminary, and I’m a bit of an odd duck on research university faculties.

  11. Avatar
    chickadrian@gmail.com  December 13, 2019

    I think your agnosticism adds substantially to your credibility. I don’t have wonder if perhaps your faith is creating bias in what you say.

  12. Avatar
    veritas  December 13, 2019

    Your last paragraph, especially the last two sentences, speaks volume on this subject and your mission. There is without a doubt a battle that has erupted between non- believing scholars and theists ( scholars). No matter how collegial and informative these debates, studies, research and speaking forums are, they divide and not harmonize. Just read Dr. Licona’s recent posts. The responses are divided. Very few are willing to admit to another’s point of view because of personal belief. The difference with you Bart, I think, is that you were once a believer and now you have become an enemy to their very core. You disprove their understanding in academic reasoning (evidence based) vs Theological views, which are more faith based. Moreover, those radically shifted reasons you speak of , were first based on Theological views (faith), considering where you attended school, and now more academic reasoning, hence doubting the inerrant book you trusted for a long time. Ravi Zacharias, the Christian apologist, states that for centuries, the greatest search for Philosophy of all time has been the search for unity in diversity. Universities were created to accomplish this but never could. I don’t think Ravi debates but you and him I would love to see. Two questions; 1) Your last paragraph is revealing. You state, ” I refuse to yield the field of Biblical studies to fundamentalist who want to thump the Bible and the field belongs just as much, if not more, to secular historians and literary scholars…..” I sense a feeling of personal revenge/defend in that statement, your position against fundamentalists. Why is this important to do this? 2) In US colleges and Universities, depending where you go for Biblical studies, do schools change your thinking in a way to conform with that school’s philosophy ? I mean if you were to become a minister,,would a conservative college be better off than a liberal one? Thanks. Love your candid honesty and agree with your post.

    • Bart
      Bart  December 15, 2019

      Thanks. 1. I think it’s important because of fundamentalists are the ones who control the meaning of the Bible in the public sphere, they are welcome to promote social policies that hurt people — once it was slavery, then and now it’s the oppression of women and the hatred of anyone who identifies as LGBTQ. 2. Yes, different schools teach theological topics differently. A fundamentalist Baptist theological seminary will teach the Bible VERY differently from Yale Divinity school, or harvard, etd. It matters very much where you go.

  13. Avatar
    drkdowd  December 14, 2019

    The canon of stories and letters that evolved into what we call the Old and New Testaments are at the very least a fascinating repository of the cultural history and values for a significant proportion of the world’s people.

    In conjunction with the Quran, Analects, Tao Te Ching, Shruti, Avesta, Pali Canon, etc, they give us insight into the hopes and dreams of their writers, as representatives of their respective cultures.

    But are any of these books divinely inspired or dictated? I think not, but others clearly disagree. I envy them: I wish that I could come to faith through rational thought, but no, the best you can get to through this process is to the edge of a cliff in a state of hopeful belief, but fatally tinged with doubt.

    Kierkegaard intimated that to go any further would require a leap of faith. Absolute faith would provide great comfort and sense of purpose. I also envy those that Calvin said come to know that they are the chosen ones, although I doubt that they are correct. I am resigned to remaining in the gutter with Oscar Wilde, looking at the stars. As a Doctor, I see a lot of people lost and in despair, searching for a renewed sense of hope. The modern secular world presents a considerable challenge to those that stop to think about their existence.

  14. Avatar
    godspell  December 14, 2019

    You ever wonder why nobody asks this question of Richard Carrier, or Robert Price? Not that they really qualify as professional scholars, but somehow that just makes it worse.

  15. Avatar
    Diane  December 14, 2019

    Timely post! Literally today is my graduation day–at 61, I just completed a bachelor’s in Religious Studies. Everytime someone asks my major, I feel compelled to add that I studied it from a historical perspective–I’ve been a staunch atheist since I was 16.

    And thank you, Dr. Ehrman, for inspiring my interest in this as a scholarly field. See you next year in Egypt, and also probably again next year at the SBL meeting.

  16. Avatar
    AlbertHodges  December 14, 2019

    Agnostics and people of all sorts should be Biblical scholars. Intellect, knowledge and integrity are key. Hopefully, they have a passion for the field.

    It is the same reason why men are OB-Gyn’s and why women treat prostate cancer.

  17. Avatar
    Damian King  December 14, 2019

    Hey Bart, I often hear you mention that “most critical scholars” think this or that… and you seem to explain that while there are many Christian/Conservative scholars that are well credentialed, what *really* matters is what critical scholars think. If this misrepresents your position, I am sorry… But I was wondering, why do you dismiss the Christian/Conservative scholars when they are well-credentialed? Thanks Bart

    • Bart
      Bart  December 15, 2019

      I don’t dismiss them actually, but read them and take their views into careful consideration. But the reality is that on a number of important questions (but NOT a number of others!), their scholarly views always line up with their personal religious views in a convenient way, when just about everyone who does not share those views has an alternative perspective. For example, just about everyone of every persuassion — except for conservative Chrisians who are committed for theological reasons to believing the Bible has no mistakes in it and *cannot* have mistakes in it, since it is, for them, a perfect revelation from God — agrees there are contradictions in the Gospels. Those who think that don’t all have the *same* view; they have a wide range of views. But all those views differ from this one group that has one major reason for disagreeing, and it is a theological reason, not a historical reason. So on this particular issue, it looks like theology is driving the conclusion rather than history. Which means on this point they are not, in the judgment of the others, engaged in critical historical research but in theology. that’s fine, but it’s not the same thing, and needs to be pointed out. “Well-credentialed” just means they have graduate training in the field. Most of them have written dissertatoins that do not touch the issues subjected to critique by other critical scholars.

  18. Avatar
    dwcriswell  December 14, 2019


    This is somewhat or maybe entirely off topic, but since you know so much about the history of Christianity and are divorced from belief do you have any speculation on the rise of evangelical militant Christianity in Brazil. I understand they are a very powerful force in Brazil and believe very strongly in the use of force against opponents, mainly Catholics, in some cases killing them (use the sell your cloak and buy swords scripture). The little I have read of them indicates they are a very charismatic and mystical group of Christians with some similarity to Pentecoastals in the US. Could you offer us any insight into this movement, it’s similarities to early Christianity or other Christian movements. Does it perhaps offer insights to what is going on in Brazilian culture and politics. Here is a link to a recent Washington Post article.

  19. Avatar
    Rpkruger  December 14, 2019

    Given the immense importance you ascribe to the Bible in terms of its impact on Western civilization, what do you think of the fact that in America today, a person can go from kindergarten to a PhD in most fields without ever opening one?

  20. Avatar
    awakenedmachine  December 15, 2019

    Egyptologists, don’t often believe in Ra, but they’re fascinated by the beliefs and culture of ancient Egyptians. How much more interesting to study a live religion of today! And really, we need this study in order to scrutinize the belief system, who else is going to do it? The Christians? Jim Jones isn’t going to tell the followers that the Kool-Aid is poisoned… When I was a Christian, I studied religions I didn’t believe in in order to better understand them (and counter them) and I certainly wasn’t the only one!

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