Bart Ehrman

Dr. Bart Ehrman is the James A. Gray Distinguished Professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. A magna cum laude graduate of Wheaton College (1978), he earned both his M.Div. (1981) and his Ph.D. (1985), again magna cum laude, at Princeton Seminary. Dr. Ehrman is an expert on the New Testament and the history of Early Christianity. Praxis Circle interviewed Dr. Ehrman because of his global reputation as a scholar of Christianity, having followed him closely since first publishing.

A religion professor at UNC for 30 years!

 Bart Ehrman:

I started teaching at Rutgers University of New Jersey and I liked the students there a lot. I liked Rutgers a lot. When I moved to UNC, it was completely different kind of experience because Rutgers, most of my students were not overly committed Christians. Very few of them were evangelical Christians of any kind. When I came to UNC, of course, lots of students come from North Carolina, most of them been raised in the church, usually in some kind of conservative church. And in many ways it’s made teaching much more interesting, in part because students already have a vested interest in the topic. When I teach New Testament or early Christianity, the kind of scholarship I present is usually at odds in some ways with things that these students have grown up on and so it’s challenging to them, but it’s especially challenging because they already have a vested interest and a firm opinion.

When that’s challenged, because their religious background and religious knowledge is so important to them, that it forces them to think about it. It’s unlike almost any other subject in the curriculum at UNC or anywhere else. When my wife teaches Chaucer, she’s an English scholar, nobody who takes her class has an opinion about the Miller’s Tale ahead of time so she can’t disabuse them of something. Whereas my students, if I talk about problems in the gospels and maybe historical problems and how it’s hard to know what Jesus really said and did, or did Paul really write this letter or not? This is completely new material for them and it’s at odds with what they’ve always thought and so they’re forced to think about it. Since one of the points of a university education is to get students to learn how to think, teaching religion in the South is perfect because it forces students to think. For me, it’s been a great experience. Plus the UNC students are fantastic or they’re really bright, they’re really interesting, they’ve got interesting lives, and they’ve got interesting stories, and so it’s been a terrific experience for me.

How has your worldview changed?

Bart Ehrman:

I know a lot of people who think that changing their mind about something of central importance to them is some kind of flaw. And that’s never been my opinion. I’ve always thought that if you come to think differently about something important to you, that can actually be a good thing. And I’ve absolutely experienced that in my life. I was raised in a Christian household. We were Episcopalians, went to church every week, said grace before dinner, but other than that we weren’t particularly religious. When I was in high school, when I was 15 years old, I started associating with a Youth for Christ group in my high school because some of my friends were in it and I thought that it was interesting. And through that, I had a born-again experience. The leader of this group was probably in his mid-20s, who was a very charismatic personality, very forceful, who convinced me that even though I’d gone to church my whole life, I wasn’t really a Christian because I hadn’t made a personal commitment to Christ as my Lord and Savior. And he convinced me I needed to do that to be a real Christian. And of course I wanted to be a real Christian, and so I did that.

I was a pretty good student in high school. I wasn’t a superstar or anything but I was pretty good and so I had some choices about where to go to college. And I was debating between going to Kansas University to be on the debate team or to go to Moody Bible Institute where this fellow, this 20-something fellow named Bruce, had gone. And he convinced me that if I was going to be a real Christian I would go to a serious Christian school. And so I went to Moody Bible Institute. Moody is a fundamentalist Bible college. They believe that the Bible has no mistakes of any kind whatsoever, it’s completely inerrant in everything it says. And I found this both convincing and compelling and so I devoted my life to studying the Bible.

When I finished the three year degree there I went off to Wheaton College which is a liberal arts college, an evangelical college, Billy Graham’s alma mater. There I majored in English and I studied Greek as my ancient language and I decided that I really wanted to pursue Greek at a graduate level. So when I graduated from Wheaton I applied to go to Princeton Theological Seminary where the world’s expert on Greek manuscripts was teaching, a man named Bruce Metzger. I wanted to study with him and so I went to Princeton Theological Seminary. And it was there at Princeton, as I was studying the Bible, the New Testament, in Greek, I learned Hebrew so I studied the old Testament in Hebrew, as I studied it more and more intensely, I started realizing that in fact there are mistakes in the Bible. There are contradictions, there are geographical mistakes, there are historical errors. And I had to change my views about the Bible. And this led me on the path to become more of a liberal Christian, rather than a fundamentalist Christian.

Then what really changed your Christian worldview?

Bart Ehrman:

During my graduate career, when I was studying the Bible and getting a PhD in New Testament Studies at Princeton Theological Seminary, my views about the faith were evolving. I came to think that the Bible wasn’t a perfect book, that there were errors in it. But I continued to be a believing Christian. I went to church every week. I was actually a pastor of a Baptist church in Princeton, New Jersey. I preached every week and did the churchly duties. But I was a fairly liberal Christian, and I remained that for a number of years. I ended up teaching at Rutgers University, and at Rutgers, I was asked to teach a class called The Problem of Suffering in the Biblical Traditions. I thought this would be a great class to teach, because I had long thought that all of the authors of the Bible in one way or another are wrestling with a problem of why they’re suffering in the world.

If there’s a God who created this world is good, and he’s ultimately sovereign over this world, how do you explain the fact that there’s so much pain and misery in it? And the Bible has a number of different answers to this. I thought this would be a great class to teach because it’s a way of introducing students to the variety of views within the Bible about a particularly important topic. And when I taught the class it became clear, even to the students, that different authors had different answers to this problem of suffering. This got me to thinking myself, personally, about how I was trying to resolve the fact that there’s so much suffering in a world controlled by God. I did all the reading. I knew what the biblical scholar said and what the theologian said. I read what the philosopher said. I read massively.

After about 10 years of thinking about this, I finally got to a point where I simply said, “I don’t believe it.” I know the answers. I know about free will. I mean, I know the various things, and I don’t think that there’s a God who’s in charge of this world, who answers prayer, who intervenes when people need him, because most people who need him don’t get any intervention at all. I mean, it’s nice that I do, because I live a very good life. But what about all these people starving to death, or all these people killed in an earthquake, or a tsunami or a hurricane? And so probably about 25 years ago, I just decided, I simply can’t believe it anymore, and that’s when I became an agnostic.

Why is freedom such an issue in the West?

Doug Monroe:

Very cool. And I think just as an aside, when the world went from being pagan, polytheistic to mono, that created the problem.

Bart Ehrman:

Absolutely, created the problem.

Doug Monroe:

For the early church founders. They immediately gravitated…

Bart Ehrman:

Yeah, because the polytheist had no problem. You just say the bad gods are doing it.

Doug Monroe:

Yeah, exactly. They’re bad gods are good gods. What’s the problem?

Bart Ehrman:

Yeah, right.

Doug Monroe:

Okay, I’d go along with that. But it also is why I would argue freedom is such a thing in the West. Okay. But this is a great statement you made-

Are you agnostic, atheist, or materialist?

Bart Ehrman:

When I was realizing that I was losing my faith, I was trying to understand where that would take me. My idea, at the time, was the idea that most people seem to have today, which is that the two major choices are to be an agnostic or an atheist and that these are two degrees of the same thing.

When I actually became an agnostic, I realized that a lot of agnostic and atheists also think this, and they’re very militaristic about their own terms. So atheists basically think that agnostics are wimpy atheists. They’re really atheists, but they’re afraid to admit it, and so they just say, “I don’t know” because they’re being wimpy about it. Agnostics, on the other hand, think that all atheists are simply arrogant agnostics because they’re claiming, “There’s no God.” Well, how would they know? They don’t know. And so they’re just being arrogant about it.

So that was the view I brought in, and it’s a view I no longer have. I don’t think that agnosticism and atheism actually are two degrees of something. I think they are two different things. Agnosticism… the word agnostic comes from the Greek word that means “don’t know,” and it has to do with knowledge. If somebody were to ask me, “Do you know whether there’s a superior divine being in the universe,” I’d say, “No, I don’t know. How would I know?”

Atheism, though, isn’t about knowledge. It’s about belief, theism. It’s about belief. Do you believe there’s a superior power in the universe? No, I absolutely don’t believe it. And so I consider myself to be both an agnostic and an atheist at the same time.

My own view now, as it’s developed over the years, is that of a fairly rigorous materialist. I think that this material world is all there is. I don’t think that we have a soul that’s separate from our body, that we have a mind that’s separate from our brain. I don’t think that when we die, we continue to exist in any way. I think this world is going to end. There will no longer be life on earth and that probably, there won’t be any life in the universe as soon as it expands enough over some many billions of years. Life will cease, and there’s nothing beyond it. And so I’m a fairly complete materialist.

What and where is consciousness to you?

Bart Ehrman:

Of course, scientists wrestle strongly with what consciousness is, and there are lots of opinions by some very smart people. And the reality is, we don’t really know. But I do agree with those scholars, those scientists who say that in some way or another it has to do with the functioning of the brain. They haven’t narrowed it down yet because there are lots of opinions about it, but it’s located in the brain, it’s a material process, that there’s not something outside the brain that is providing consciousness for you.

Did a changed worldview change your politics?

Bart Ehrman:

I was raised in Kansas, in a conservative household that was in addition to being ethically, morally conservative, religiously conservative was also politically conservative. And so I was raised a Republican, my parents were Republican, and that was my environment.

When I went to college, as I went on in college and then into graduate school, I started realizing that for me, the democratic party embraced the Christian values I had at the time. And that the democratic party was more interested, in my opinion at the time, in helping out the poor and the needy and developing social programs to help those who couldn’t help themselves. And so my senior year in college, I moved to the democratic side of that. And I’d say, I’ve continued to move since then. I have a very liberal social values. And for me, just speaking personally, so I don’t try and push this on anyone else, but me speaking personally, I think that it’s very hard to understand what’s happening in this country when there are so many Christians who don’t seem to care about the issues that are important to Jesus and the new Testament, and the old Testament.

The ethical issues people care about today, the moral issues of the far right, such as the second amendment and immigration and abortion, these are issues that are not even in the Bible. The Bible is about helping people in need, and the Bible doesn’t draw national boundaries, the Bible doesn’t say that if you are from Columbia, you’re less important than if you’re from Columbus. It doesn’t say that. It says that all people are important. And I think that people who are trying to be genuinely Christian ought to take the ethics of the new Testament more seriously, and be more concerned about the welfare of others, rather than their own nationalistic interests.

Off program comments

Doug Monroe:

Good answer.

Bart Ehrman:

I’ll get shot for that one.

Doug Monroe:

Now, I’m going to… What’s that?

Bart Ehrman:

I said, I’ll get shot for that one.

Doug Monroe:

No you won’t, no you won’t. But you will see this interview before it goes live, to the extent you want to look at it. Just give me your comments, whatever you…

Bart Ehrman:

It’s all right. I actually never watch interviews. I don’t because I was on TV once many years ago and I said something really stupid and my wife thought it was the funniest thing she’d ever heard. So I just, I never ever watch. She just laughed and laughed at me.

What Christian positions are most objectionable to outsiders?

Doug Monroe:

Okay. I list them. The absolute literal inerrancy of the Bible, the absolute need for faith in Christ among all other worldviews for salvation, the importance of believing in key miracles, you know, like the bodily resurrection, the existence in nature of heaven, hell, and evil, the need for and in timing of the eschaton, the basic moral principles surrounding marriage and sex. Is that fairly comprehensive.

Bart Ehrman:

I would say people who are not associated with a Christian tradition and have never been raised in the Christian tradition, find some aspects of Christianity more puzzling than others, and even somewhat ludicrous. The idea that the Bible has no mistakes of any kind whatsoever strikes most outsiders as just craziness. Many outsiders can understand some of the ethical positions of Christianity, and they might completely disagree about things like extramarital sex, but at least they can kind of understand what it’s about. But there are other things that many Christians hold to such as the idea that Jesus is going to come back sometime within our lifetime, probably sometime next Thursday, that strikes most outsiders as ludicrous. But there are other things that are not quite as ludicrous. There are a lot of people in the world who believe in miracle who aren’t Christian. And so that isn’t as big of a stumbling block for many people, but especially fundamentalist Christianity, I think, is considered somewhat risible by most outsiders.

Do Christians believe the Bible is literally inerrant? 

Bart Ehrman:

It’s very interesting living in the south, which I’ve done for over 30 years now, because a lot of people in the south, a lot of good Christians in the south think that Christianity means believing in the Bible. And by that, most people mean you have to believe that the Bible doesn’t have any mistakes in it. If you think Bible has any mistakes in it, you can’t really be a Christian. As a historian of Christianity, I realize how strange this view is, because throughout the vast majority of Christian history, nobody thought that.

This is a very modern construction that came about in the end of the 19th century. The idea that the Bible is inherent and you have to believe in the Bible. In reality, the church fathers going all the way back, not just to Augustine in the fourth and fifth centuries, but going back to origin, before him, and they didn’t have this doctrine of the inherency of the Bible, it’s a modern construction. And so the idea that you have to believe in the Bible to be a Christian is from a historical point of view, completely bogus.

An overview of potential problems in the Bible?

Bart Ehrman:

I can try. That’s a lot.

Doug Monroe:

It’s a lot.

Bart Ehrman:

Yeah, that’s more than a semester’s course. So, yeah, I’ll try and do it quickly.

So when I was a Bible believing fundamentalist Christian, we thought that there were no mistakes of any kind in the Bible. As I started studying the Bible from a scholarly point of view, starting at Princeton Theological Seminary, where I was training to be a minister, but they were academic there and they had scholarship behind what they thought, I began to realize that in fact, the Bible does have serious problems. When you compare two accounts of the same event in the Bible, you’ll often find contradictions. If you read closely what the Bible has to say about historical events and compare them with what we know about history from other sources, it looks like there are mistakes. There are parts of the Bible that are attributed to people who almost certainly could not have written them.

Moses did not write the first five books of the Old Testament. There are sources behind it that had been around for hundreds of years before somebody came together. Now, in that case, there’s no deceit involved because the author of those five books doesn’t claim to be Moses. Only later people said, “Well, it was Moses.” But you have other books in the Bible, especially in the New Testament where an author actually claims to be somebody other than who he is. We have 13 letters that claim to be written by Paul. Six of them probably were not written by Paul. When I started thinking this and started realizing this, what we said to ourselves to explain it was, “Well, that was okay in the ancient world. People just did that kind of thing and nobody thought badly of it.” And that’s what I thought until I actually looked into it.

And it turns out ancient people did think badly about it. They called this lying. It was a kind of deceit. In fact, they called books like this lies. What do we do about the fact that we have books that claim to be written by Paul and by Peter and by James and by Jude that actually were written by people falsely claiming to be these people? Well, modern people would call those forgeries. Most scholars are reluctant to call them forgeries if they’re in the New Testament, but that’s just because they’re in the New Testament. If they weren’t in the New Testament, they wouldn’t have the same qualms. But these are some of the problems that we have with the Bible that simply come out by doing historical analysis of them.

Does this mean the Bible can’t be the inspired word of God?

Bart Ehrman:

A lot of my students at Chapel Hill who are raised in conservative Christian households are upset when they find out there are contradictions in the Bible. And that scholars saying some of the books weren’t written by the people who claim to be writing them, and that there are other kinds of mistakes. And they conclude from that the Bible therefore cannot be inspired by God. That’s actually not my opinion. I’m not a believer myself, I don’t believe in God. But theoretically, there’s no reason why God can’t inspire a book that has mistakes in it. If God created the world, the world certainly has mistakes in it.

So I know a number of people who are devout Christians trained as theologians, who are pastors of churches who acknowledge that the Bible has mistakes in it. Their belief isn’t based on the Bible, their belief is based on their faith in Christ. So the idea that the Bible has mistakes, one shouldn’t reject that because it has to be inspired. It could be inspired and still have mistakes.

Is the Bible more a narrative than a deposition?

Bart Ehrman:

One of the problems for fundamentalist readers of the Bible is that fundamentalists, oddly enough, tend to have a post-Enlightenment understanding of truth. You would think that the Enlightenment, which was challenging the faith, wouldn’t be employed by people who accept the faith so vehemently, but in fact, understandings of truth as objective is completely an Enlightenment idea, and fundamentalist hold onto that. That means that if there’s a mistake in the Bible, if they were convinced of a mistake, they’d feel like they have to give the whole thing up.

Another way to look at it is that we all tell ourselves stories when we try to make sense of our lives and our past. And we now know from memory studies, the studies of memory by psychologists and by other experts in these fields that in fact, when tell stories to ourselves, we often misrepresent the past. We may not think we are, we may not know we are, but we do. All of us do.

And in some ways, the Bible is like a story that’s being retold. It would not be surprising at all that some of the past gets changed in the retelling. That’s how we function as human beings. And so I think rather than a post-Enlightenment understanding that there has to be objective truth, we maybe should think about truth more as narrative, more as, “This is how we tell ourselves stories, and we live in certain stories” and for Christians, Christians live within the story of the Bible as it’s being implemented in the current world. So it’s really more about narrative rather than objective truth.

What was Jesus’ historical context?

Bart Ehrman:

One of the most significant developments of scholarship about the New Testament, over the past century, has been the recognition that to understand Jesus and his disciples, you have to put them in their own historical context. They’re not living in our context. They’re not 21st century Americans. They’re first century Jews from Galilee. Jesus ends up being crucified in Judea, in Jerusalem, by a Roman governor of the land.

Without understanding the Roman policies of rule in Palestine, we can’t understand what Jesus and his followers were dealing with. The Romans, of course, were very harsh. They believed in keeping the peace with great strength. They would squash any rebellion. And any uprising was immediately taken out, or any threat of an uprising was immediately taken out. The Romans basically wanted no uprisings, and they wanted taxes. And any governor who could bring those things was fine.

The Roman governor Pontius Pilate was supposed to keep the peace, raise the taxes. Jesus was accused of calling himself the future king of the Jews. So they had to crucify him. They crucified him. This led to the beginning of Christianity. What’s interesting is that Christianity ended up advocating a completely different ideology from the Roman ideology. No longer did Christians think that dominance was the way to interact with people. They thought that charity was; that you take care of those who are in need. And this developed into an entirely different way of looking at the world that sprung out of this dominance-focused Roman Empire.

What about the disciples as martyrs?

Bart Ehrman:

Almost every semester, I have students come up and tell me that they know that Jesus was raised from the dead and that Christianity must be true because we know that all of the Disciples believed this and died for it, that they were martyred for believing this, and nobody would die for a lie.

It’s an interesting idea. It’s a view that I used to support myself when I was a conservative Christian. There are several problems with it, but one is a reality that my students have never thought of, which is how do we know how the Disciples died? They simply assume it’s in the Bible, but it’s not in the Bible. The Apostle James is said to be killed in the Bible by King Herod, but we’re not told why. We don’t know if it’s because of his belief in a resurrection or not.

Peter is predicted to be killed. But again, we don’t know the details of his death, and we don’t know why or how all of the others died. There are references later to Paul being martyred. But other than that, what we have are later legends from the second, the third, the fourth century, in other words, hundreds of years later, and so we don’t know how they died. They may have been martyred, but we don’t have evidence of it.

So when people say all the Disciples are martyred for the faith, we actually don’t know that.

Are Gospel inconsistencies new information?

Bart Ehrman:

When I teach the New Testament to my undergraduates, a lot of them wonder why didn’t other people see these problems. You have contradictions and historical mistakes, and didn’t ancient Christian scholars see these things? And the answer is a little bit complicated because there absolutely were scholars in the early centuries of Christianity who realized that there were problems, especially with the gospels, that there are places where they seem to disagree with each other and different scholars had different ways of approaching that.

One way to approach it was to try and reconcile them all, like modern people often do. One sort of will say one thing, one will say the opposite thing, and you somehow try to reconcile them.

Other scholars in the early church actually said the reason there are contradictions is because God put the contradictions there so you’d realize that both statements can’t be literally true and that shows you, you have to understand these texts figuratively, spiritually, rather than literally, which is not an acceptable solution to most modern Christians. There are other people who did what many modern Christians do, which is simply not even notice.

I find that most of the problems in the New Testament that I identify my students, my students may have read this passage a hundred times and they simply haven’t seen it in until you point out this doesn’t work if that is true. They see that and they say, “Oh my God. Why didn’t I see that?” Well, people don’t see it because they’re not expecting it. You often don’t see what you don’t expect.

Is Christianity a religion of or about Jesus?

Bart Ehrman:

Probably every Christian in history has assumed that his or her religious beliefs are the ones taught by Jesus himself. One of the most interesting and important discoveries of scholarship over the last 100, 150 years is that Jesus has to be understood his own context as a first century, Palestinian Jew who had points of view that may not coincide with modern points of view, but also may not have coincided with the views of his later followers.

When you compare what Jesus has to say about how to have salvation with what the apostle Paul says about how to have salvation, it’s actually very difficult to reconcile these two views. I’m not saying they’re contradictory, but they are certainly different. When a man comes up to Jesus and says, “What must I do to have eternal life?” Jesus says, “Keep the commandments.” In other words, follow the Jewish law. The man says, “Well, which ones?” “Well, don’t murder. Don’t commit adultery.” He goes through the commandments.

Then he says, “But if you really want to be perfect, give everything away and then you’ll have treasure in heaven. After you do that, then you can follow me.” When somebody comes up to Paul and says, “What must I do to be saved?” Paul does not say keep the commandments. Paul says keeping the commandments will not save you. Following the law has nothing to do with your salvation. It’s believing in the death and resurrection of Jesus.

Well, if Jesus was right that you could have eternal life by following the law, how can Paul be right that following the law isn’t going to make… So that’s why it’s scholars, since the end of the 19th century, have sometimes pointed out that Christianity, as it developed, is not so much the religion of Jesus, the religion that Jesus had, as it is the religion about Jesus.

How to label Jesus?

Bart Ehrman:

It’s always very difficult to label a person as being one thing or another. Sure, somebody is politically far right or sure, somebody is a Presbyterian or sure, somebody is a faithful father. But in fact, all of us are many different things and so is Jesus. And so it’s difficult to put a label on Jesus and say he was this. But if what you’re interested in knowing is what was the focus of his message and mission, then it’s somewhat less difficult. Scholars have studied for a long time what we can say about the historical Jesus himself, what he actually said, and what he was trying to accomplish for over a century. The most popular view among scholars, not among lay folk but among scholars, is the one popularized by Albert Schweitzer, the great humanitarian who won the Nobel Peace prize, who was also a theologian, who insisted that Jesus is best understood as an apocalyptic prophet.

What that means is that Jesus was somebody who believed that God had told him that this evil world he was living in then, was soon going to come to a halt. That God was going to intervene in history to destroy the forces of evil and bring in a good kingdom on earth, the kingdom of God. Jesus expected this to happen within his own lifetime. That continues to be the majority view among scholars today in America and Europe. And so the label wanted to put on that as an apocalyptic prophet, somebody who predicts that the apocalypse is soon to come.

What was different about Jesus’ teachings?

Bart Ehrman:

There wasn’t one form of Judaism. There wasn’t something… they didn’t even use the term Orthodox for what it was that different people believed. There are different kinds of Judaism. One of the tricks is figuring out how Jesus fits into this mix.

The reality is that virtually everything the historical Jesus himself taught can be found in the teachings of other Jewish teachers of the day. When I say that, what I mean is not that Jesus in the Gospels teaches only what other Jewish teachers. What I’m saying is the historical Jesus himself taught only things found in other Jewish teachers. Later, Christians who told stories about Jesus’ teachings altered them in places to make them sound more Christian. So I don’t think Jesus was really teaching a Christian message. I think He was a first century Jew. He’s teaching Jewish men. And so His message wasn’t different from what you find in a lot of Jews.

And so then the question is why Christianity then? If there are other Jews teaching the same thing, why don’t they have religions founded on them? And I think that there’s a very easy answer to that, which is Jesus was believed to be raised from the dead. His followers thought He was resurrected and that was true of none of the other Jewish leaders of His day. His followers came to be convinced that He had, in fact, been the Messiah and that changed everything, so that Christianity, in some sense, doesn’t actually begin with the teachings of Jesus. If Jesus had taught what He taught and then died and disappeared, you wouldn’t have Christianity. Even if Jesus was raised from the dead and nobody believed it, you wouldn’t have Christianity because nobody would’ve believed it. Christianity is built on the belief in Jesus’ resurrection, not on Jesus’ teaching themselves.

Off program comments

Doug Monroe:

I’m trying to decide whether this is worth it, how far we can get. Okay. Just a little bit of a, if you don’t have anything to say about this, you can pass on it.

Bart Ehrman:

Okay.

Doug Monroe:

But I’m giving a little bit of devil’s advocate to N.T. Wright saying that the idea that the world would end tomorrow, it may be hard to explain all of Jesus’s parables about the long term.

Bart Ehrman:

Uh-huh (affirmative).

Doug Monroe:

Same with Paul.

Bart Ehrman:

Yeah.

Doug Monroe:

Why would Paul go to all this trouble if he thought-

Bart Ehrman:

Yeah, yeah.

Doug Monroe:

It was going to be over in a week.

Bart Ehrman:

Absolutely able to answer that question.

Doug Monroe:

Okay.

Bart Ehrman:

Do you want me to name Tom Wright?

Doug Monroe:

Yes. Yeah. I admire him personally, so …

Bart Ehrman:

Oh no, no. He’s a great scholar. He’s a great scholar. I just happen to disagree with him on this one.

Doug Monroe:

Okay. Okay.

Why was Jesus an apocalyptic prophet to you?

Bart Ehrman:

There are scholars today who question whether Jesus expected the end of history as we know it in his lifetime. He tells a number of parables that seem to presuppose that his followers are in it for the long term. Doesn’t that show that he didn’t really believe that the son of man was soon to arrive from heaven and judgment on the earth. My view is that you have to look at every teaching of Jesus separately and individually to decide, is that something he really said, or not. This isn’t my view. It is my view, but it’s not … When I came up with … This has been around for a hundred years. You have to decide which teachings of Jesus actually go back to him, and which ones were put on his lips by his later followers.

The gospels that we have from later Christianity are written 40, 50 or 60 years later by people who know that the end was not going to come in Jesus’ lifetime. Would they be inclined to make up sayings of Jesus that indicate that the end is not supposed to come in his lifetime? Of course, they would, because they knew it didn’t come in his lifetime. Would they be likely to make up sayings of Jesus where he indicates that the end was coming in his lifetime? No, they wouldn’t make that sort of thing up, because it hadn’t come in their lifetime. Which means the sayings of Jesus that show that the end is soon are likely to be the ones that he actually said. Jesus certainly thought the end was coming very soon. He told his disciples that some of you are not going to die before you see it happen.

He said that his generation would not pass away before all of this takes place. That was his teaching. And by the way, it was the teaching of Paul too, the Apostle Paul. Why would Paul be so urgent in his Christian mission, if he thought that it’s going to end very soon. Paul was urgent in his mission, precisely because he thought it was going to end very soon. People had to convert or they were going to be destroyed when judgment day came and it’s going to be sometime next month. And so Paul was urgent to get the message out there, but precisely the imminent end that’s driving this urgency.

What is true about Jesus?

Bart Ehrman:

Even though the gospels are filled with problems of contradictions and historical mistakes and words put on Jesus lips, that he didn’t actually say all of the findings of modern scholarship, even though that’s true, there is still a good deal of the gospels that is historically reliable, that I think we know Jesus said and did. You can’t simply pick your favorite parts and say, “Well, he probably said that or he probably did that”. It takes rigorous analysis. You actually have to know the ancient languages to do it in a very serious way. And there are scholars who spend their entire lives doing this. And so it isn’t simply a matter of picking and choosing. It’s actually engaging in historical analysis. But among the things that I think we can say with relative certainty, Jesus certainly existed. He was a Jewish preacher from Galilee. He collected disciples around him.

He taught them his understanding of the law of Moses and his view of what God was doing in the world. Jesus almost certainly thought that the evil age he lived in was going to come to an end soon and that people needed to repent and prepare for this coming end, and their preparation for it involved doing the things that God wanted them to do. For Jesus, that wasn’t simply following a group of little commandments here and there or making sure you crossed all the Ts and dotted all the Is. For Jesus it was a matter of following the major principles, which for him were: You should love God above all else and you should love your neighbor as yourself. And that if you do those things and you are completely committed to God, then you will be saved when this coming end arrives.

There’s a lot of in that message that can be translated today, into our world. It’s a message of being more concerned about other people than for ourselves. Taking care of those who are needy, taking care of those who are hungry and homeless and dealing with the current situation. And a lot of people today think the world is going to end soon. Maybe not because the Son of Man is coming back in glory, but maybe we’re going to blow ourselves off the planet or maybe climate change is going to change. And in light of the fact that the end is coming soon, one way or the other, this is how we ought to behave. And so I think in fact, this can translate not only for those who are committed Christians, but for anybody living in our world today.

What about the Gospel’s resurrection accounts?

Bart Ehrman:

One of the most certain facts about Jesus’s life has to do with his death. On the basis of a rigorous historical analysis, there can’t be really any question at all.

Jesus was crucified on orders of Pontius Pilate, the governor of Judea. He was crucified for making a political claim to be the king of the Jews. That’s the charge brought up at the trial. That’s what’s written on the placard over his head at the crucifixion. It’s the reason they crucified him.

If somebody claims to be a rival king, rival to Rome, then the Roman simply killed him publicly in a very painful way. They crucified him. And so there’s little doubt that’s the charge brought against Jesus, is that he is calling himself the king of the Jews, which in Jewish circles, the way you call yourself the future king, is you call yourself the Messiah.

The term Messiah for Jews referred to the one who was anointed by God to be the future ruler. The Hebrew word, Mashiach, Messiah, literally means anointed one. The king is anointed to be king.

Jesus is claiming to be the future king. Pilate hears of it, has him crucified. So there’s no doubt about that.

In the gospels, after Jesus is crucified, he’s buried by Joseph of Arimathea, and three days later, on the third day, some women come to the tomb, find that it’s empty, and they come to believe that he’s been raised from the dead.

My view about this is that we’re sure about the crucifixion. I don’t think we can be sure that he was buried by Joseph of Arimathea. The Roman policies were not to allow crucified criminals to be buried decently as part of the humiliation. They let them decay on the cross to be subject to wild scavengers.

It’s almost impossible for us to believe that Jesus could possibly have been left on the cross, but that’s what the Romans do with virtually everybody else of the many, many, many thousands of people they crucified, and so I don’t think they made an exception because they knew that Jesus was the son of God. Maybe they made an exception, but it seems unlikely.

Why then do you have these stories about Jesus is being buried? Because 40 years later, and even before that, Christians who are telling the stories know that he has to be raised from the dead. There can’t be an empty tomb unless there’s a tomb, and so he has to be buried.

My suspicion is that Christians came up with the story of the burial. My further suspicion is that nobody came to believe that Jesus was raised from the dead because they knew about an empty tomb.

In the New Testament, when anybody finds an empty tomb, they don’t think Jesus has been raised from the dead. They’re confused. They don’t understand.

That makes sense. If you put somebody in a tomb and you come back three days later and the tomb is empty, your first thought is not, “Oh, he’s been exalted to heaven and sitting at the right hand of the Father.”

Your first thought is, “Grave robbers,” or you think, “Hey, I’m at the wrong tomb here.”

So the empty tomb doesn’t convince anybody. In the gospels what convinces people is they have visions of Jesus. They see him alive afterwards, and I think that’s why the early Christians started believing in Jesus, is because some of Jesus followers said they saw him and that convinced people and it started the resurrection belief, which began Christianity.

How did Jesus become a Christian god?

Bart Ehrman:

It’s clear from our earliest Gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, that Jesus’ disciples did not consider him to be God while he was alive. It’s also clear from later writings that after they came to believe in his resurrection, they did believe he was God in some sense. They didn’t think he was God the Father, but in some sense, he’s God. This is hard for us to conceptualize in the modern world, but in the ancient world, it makes perfect sense. In the ancient world, we know of a number of human beings who are said at the end of their lives to be taken up to heaven. This is in Greek and Roman mythology. It’s actually in Jewish circles. It’s also in the New Testament. Jesus is taken up to heaven. When somebody is taken up to heaven, they dwell in the heavenly realm and they’re made a divine being. The early Christians who believed Jesus was taken up to heaven believed he was a divine being, that God had made him divine.

Over time, as they began thinking more and more about it, they thought, “Well, he must not have been made God just after he died. He must have been God during his ministry because of all his miracles.” And so then they started thinking, “Well, when he was baptized, God made him divine.” “You are my son. Today, I have begotten you.” And as they thought out about it more, they thought, “Well, it wasn’t just during his ministry. It was during his life.” And so when he was born of a virgin in two of our later Gospels, he’s born of a Virgin because God is literally his father. His mother’s a virgin. So he is the son of God from his birth. As they thought about it more, it isn’t just during his birth. He must have always been God.

And so already in the New Testament you have the idea that Jesus is a divine being before he comes into the world. As time goes on, Christians think more and more about this. When you start moving into the later centuries, into the Third and the Fourth Century, there are theologians with deep philosophical training who come to believe that, in fact, Christ is not simply a divine being next to God the father. There’s only one God. Christ and the father are one. It’s not that they’re the same, but they’re equal. And this begins then the development of the Doctrine of the Trinity that you start getting in the fourth and fifth Christian centuries.

How do your 2 books about Jesus becoming God/the rise of Christianity differ?

Bart Ehrman:

In my book, How Jesus Became God, my interest was with internal debates within Christianity, understanding the theology of Jesus, who is he? As they develop their ideas, that he’s not just a human being, he’s God.

In my book, The Triumph of Christianity, I’m not interested in the internal Christian debates about theology. I’m interested in how Christianity was spreading throughout the Roman world. How did Christians convince non-Christians to accept their faith in Christ? It’s an extremely interesting question and a particularly important one because Christianity became the dominant institution of all of Western civilization and today is the religion, the largest religion, in the entire world.

Well, it started out with just a handful of Jesus followers who were lower class, illiterate, Jews from Galilee who spoke Aramaic. How within 400 years do they take over the entire Roman Empire? It’s a really interesting question. And so The Triumph of Christianity tries to explain how that happens. What did these people say and do to convince so many people that it eventually becomes the official religion of Rome and then the religion of the West for many centuries down to our own day?

Why was the rise of Christianity the most important event in Western history?

Bart Ehrman:

When Christianity took over the Roman Empire, it changed everything, socially, culturally, politically, not to mention religiously. In terms of religion, before this virtually everybody in the empire, except for the Jews, who were maybe 5 to 7% of the empire, everyone else was a polytheist, believing in many gods. Christians said, “No, there’s only one God. Jesus is His son. You have to believe in him for salvation.” These were all completely new ideas. And soon, virtually everybody agreed with these ideas, which were unlike anything that had been said for ever for thousands and thousands of years.

But it wasn’t just that the religion changed, culture changed, society changed, politics changed. Just in terms of culture, when we look back on our cultural heritage in the West, it doesn’t matter whether we’re thinking about literature or art or music or philosophy, all of them are incalculably different because of Christianity.

I mean, you don’t have Mozart or Bach without Christianity. In art, you don’t have Michael Angelo or Leonardo. In literature, you don’t have Milton or Shakespeare. So you just kind of go down the list. And I’m not saying that we wouldn’t have music, art, and literature, and philosophy. We certainly would have it, but they’d be incalculably different without Christianity.

And so this completely transformed Western civilization and in a way that nothing else ever has and probably nothing else ever will. And so the question of how it happened, for me, is one of the most important questions that we can ask if we’re interested in the history and culture of the West.

How does your book differ from Dr. Rodney Stark’s book of the same title?

Bart Ehrman:

I thought Rodney Stark’s book The Rise of Christianity was a very interesting book, mainly because as a sociologist, he knows how to crunch numbers. People have talked about how Christianity spread throughout the empire, but nobody could figure out how you could get from a small number in the first century, to an enormous number in the fourth century. If Christianity starts with say 20 people in the year 30, Jesus’ disciples and a handful of women right after his death, how do you get to 3 or 4 million people 300 years later? The assumption was always, well, it’s got to be a miracle, or you have to have massive conversion. Billy Graham type rallies, where thousands of people convert at once, and Stark showed, no, you don’t need that. He knows how population growth works. He’s a sociologist, and so he calculated a rate of growth.

That, by far, was the best part of his book, because he’s a sociologist who can crunch numbers. Where he and I disagree are on just about everything else. He has various theories about why Christianity took over, that by and large depend on a trust and reliance on our historical sources as simply telling it as it is. So if we have sources from Christians who say that we as Christians take care of the sick when they’re deadly ill, but those pagans, they don’t care about their family members. They just desert them. Well, Stark thinks well, that’s probably right then. So Christians tend to the sick, and the pagans don’t, and therefore Christians survive better because they nurse their… Most scholars who are actually scholars of early Christianity don’t approach their sources that way. He’s not a scholar of early Christianity. He’s a modern sociologist.

We have very good reason for thinking that in fact, pagans were concerned about the sick. They did love their families. We also know that in times of epidemic, even if it were true that the Christians took care of their family members more often than pagan, I don’t think it’s true, but if it was true, then what would happen is the people taking care of the sick would get sick themselves. They would get infected, and so the death rates would be higher among the Christians. In other words, it can’t explain why Christianity took off when paganism was that… Because of better healthcare. So there’s example, after example like that in his book where he comes up with really interesting arguments, and intriguing claims that I think don’t hold up against critical scrutiny.

My view actually is more the view of an ancient sociologist who taught at Yale, Ramsay MacMullen, who showed that the reason people were converting to Christianity wasn’t because of superior healthcare, or because of various other, it’s because people were convinced that the Christian God was more powerful than their gods, that religion in the ancient world was all about having access to power that we, as human beings need simply to survive. We can’t control the rain. We can’t control whether the crops grow. We can’t help it if somebody gets sick. We can’t do anything about it. There’s so much in our world we can’t control. The gods can. You worship the God for the divine power. Christians claimed their God was more powerful than the others, and they proved it by the claims of all these miracles they were doing, and that’s what converted people.

Did Christianity grow from the top down or bottom up?

Bart Ehrman:

When I started my research on the triumph of Christianity, I thought like most people appeared still to think, which is I thought that the reason Christianity took over the empire in the fourth century is because the Emperor Constantine converted. It’s maybe three or four million people at the beginning of the fourth century. It’s about 30 million at the end of the fourth century. And so, the difference is Constantine converted. He’s the emperor, and so he enforced Christianity on his subjects. That’s what I thought, until I actually did the work and realized that’s not it at all.

This is something… this is the one thing that Rodney Stark really convinced me of. If you actually chart the rate of growth, the rate of growth slows down in the fourth century. It’s because the way growth rates work in population. It’s like investments. If you’ve got an investment and you’ve got $100.00 in the bank and you make 5%, you’re not making very much money. But if you’ve got 100 million in the bank and you make 5%, you’re making money hand over fist. It’s an exponential curve, the more money you get.

That’s how it works with Christianity. It starts out small, but at some point, all of a sudden the numbers start growing and then boom, it takes off. That would’ve happened whether Constantine converted or not. The rate of Christian growth actually slowed down after Constantine. It didn’t increase, which means it had to slow down because otherwise, there’d be more Christians in the world than there were people in the world about 20 years after Constantine. So it had to slow down, which means it’s not because of Constantine.

Did a few extraordinary leaders make Christianity happen?

Bart Ehrman:

One of the most intriguing issues about the growth of Christianity from the 1st century to the end of the 4th century when it went from a tiny little sect of Jews to becoming the official religion of Rome, one of the most intriguing questions is who made it happen? And we tend to think in terms of big names. So when we do history today, we think who are the big figures. The American Revolution, who are the big figures? The Civil War, who are the big figures? That’s just how we’re trained to think because of the way our schooling works. And it simply doesn’t work for early Christianity.

One of the very odd things about the spread of Christianity in the first 300 years is that after the Apostle Paul we know the names of only two missionaries who were actually out there trying to convert people. And so it isn’t being done by the leaders of the church who are out there doing their evangelistic rallies. It’s actually happening at the very low level. You have heard about Christianity from a business associate of yours. And so after talking to this person for three months, you convert. You tell your wife, she converts. She talks to her next door neighbor, she converts. She converts her husband who converts her business associate. Her business associate converts his children. And it goes like that for hundreds of years not with big names. And so apart from Paul at the beginning and Constantine at the end, we really don’t have big names to associate with the spread of Christianity.

Was Christianity’s rise inevitable or an absolute good?

Bart Ehrman:

Almost always when we look back on history, we think that virtually everything big that happened was a fait accompli. It was simply going to happen. We think this about the Second World War, that the Allies naturally were going to win. We think this about the First World War. We think this about the Civil War, we think about the Rev… We just think this is how it was going to happen. People living at the time of course don’t know how it’s going to happen. This is true in our own day, where we really don’t know what’s going to happen in the future. But in 200 years, it’s going to seem like a fait accompli. My view about the triumph of Christianity is that it brought enormous good to the world, not only in terms of culture and for example, certain kinds of ethical views, I think very positive, it brought a big change in how people understood the meaning of life.

And especially with it is important I think, because Christianity brought the idea that life should be a life of service to others rather than life of dominating others, which was the Roman ideology. That the whole point of the existence was to dominate those weaker than you. Now, a lot of people still had that view today, but that wasn’t the Christian view. The original Christian view hasn’t been the Christian view throughout history. So Christianity’s done an enormous amount of good for our world. I hesitate though to say that Christianity was necessarily only a good thing, because Christianity has brought a lot of harm to the world, too. Christianity has been used to justify wars, torture, oppression, slavery. It’s still used to support racism and sexism and economic exploitation.

It’s used for terrible purposes. Now, somebody would say, “Well, that’s not really Christianity”, and okay, fair enough. But this is things that Christians do that if they weren’t Christian, who knows? Would culture have been better if Christianity hadn’t succeeded? How can we say? What could be better than Bach and Mozart and Leonardo and Michelangelo? What could be better? I don’t know. But there were fantastic artists in Ancient Greece and Rome, masses of fantastic literature that’s all been lost, because the Christians didn’t copy it. Artwork that was destroyed because the Christians didn’t like it. Music we don’t even know about because they didn’t preserve. And so we don’t know whether culturally would’ve been better or worse, but it would’ve been different. And so that’s why the tribe for Christianity is so significant, because everything we have, all of our cultural heritage really goes back to it.

Doug Monroe:

Me being a Christian, whenever I see Christians doing bad stuff, I blame human nature.

Bart Ehrman:

I do too. And I’ve got a lot of atheist friends who say it’s all because religion. And then, no, it’s not the problem. The problem isn’t the religion, it’s the religious.

Doug Monroe:

Exactly.

What is your standard of historical proof?

Bart Ehrman:

Doing history is very different from doing science. In the modern world, we’re accustomed to being able to prove things because we have scientific methods. The way science works is you develop an experiment and you repeat the experiment and you change variables one at a time very carefully and you evaluate the results. By doing this, you set up a way of predicting what’s going to happen next. You have predictive probabilities. That’s what science is about, making predictive probability.

History doesn’t work like that. History’s not predicting what’s going to happen, it’s trying to show of what did happen, and you can’t do it scientifically because you can’t repeat the experiment. It’s a completely different way of going about demonstrating the past than predicting scientifically what’s going to happen in the future.

Of course, science also looks at the past, so I’m not saying that science … Lots of science looks at the past, but history, that’s all history does.

How do historians show what probably happened? Well, it’s less like chemistry and it’s more like criminology. How do you show that a criminal committed an act? Well, maybe you have some eyewitnesses and you interview them and if they haven’t talked with each other ahead of time but they tell the same story, that’s good. That’s good evidence. If you only have one eyewitness, that’s good but maybe they’re making it up. What you want are lots of eyewitnesses and you want them to agree without having collaborated, so you want corroboration without collaboration. What if you don’t have eyewitnesses? Well, what if you have people who heard things from eyewitnesses? Okay, well, that’s what you got and so it’s not as good as eyewitnesses. You try and get as many people like that as you can.

When historians are looking at the past, they use that kind of logic. They look for sources of information that are close to the time, that are numerous, that are independent of one another, that corroborate one another without collaborating one another, and that say things that simply make sense. Sometimes you’ll have witnesses that say things that, “You know, that seems implausible to me,” like, “The reason that I was late to work today was because the moon fell on my house.” Yeah, probably not. You have plausibility measures as well.

Historians look at a range of evidence and they have to make an argument, which means that history is always a matter of weighing probabilities and that’s why different historians have different conclusions about just about everything in history. Every individual has to look at the arguments and see what’s the most plausible thing based on the kinds of evidence we have.

Definition of religion and miracles

Doug Monroe:

Do you have a walking around definition for religion and miracles?

Bart Ehrman:

I’ll answer it, but it won’t be an answer you like.

Doug Monroe:

Okay. Okay.

Bart Ehrman:

I’ve taught in departments of religious studies at major universities for about 35 years. One of the courses in most departments of religious studies in the United States will be a course on the introduction to religion. And many times the professor will spend the entire semester trying to understand what religion is, because there are multiple understandings and multiple definitions and none of them is problem free. And so as a good scholar of religion, I don’t define it. It’s like the judge who was ruling on a court case on pornography. He wouldn’t define it, but he knew it when he saw it. And religion is like that.

Doug Monroe:

Exactly.

Bart Ehrman:

In terms of miracle, miracle is a little bit different because miracle tends to mean something today that did not mean in the ancient world. Today, the term miracle almost always means an event that happens that is contrary to the laws of nature. And so if somebody walks on lukewarm water, that can’t happen, the law of nature is the weight of your body is greater than the weight of the water that displaces, or however you want to put it, and so it sinks. And if you hold up a ball and drop it, it’s going to fall because of gravity. It’s not going to rise to the ceiling unless there’s extraordinary circumstance. Then you have to figure out the extraordinary, but it’s always by laws of nature.

Ancient people did not understand miracle that way, which is why ancient people had no trouble believing in miracles. Everybody knew there were miracles. They happened all the time. Miracles were not violations of laws of nature. Of course, everybody understood that nature works in certain ways. Women get pregnant only after they’ve had sex and so virgins don’t give birth. That was understood. They got that part.

But on the other hand, they believed that there’s so much going on around us that we cannot explain by normal means, that the reason these things are going on is because the gods are doing it. Why does the sun come up? Well, there’s no natural explanation for that. God’s making it come up. Why does it rain? You don’t have a natural … There’s no way to explain it. Why is it that if you’re sick, you get well? Well, there’s no way to explain that. And so they invoke the gods. Miracles are not violations of natural law. They’re divine acts. And since the gods are acting all the time, it’s no greater miracle to walk on water than it is to have the sun come up. They’re both miracles. And so ancient people had no trouble believing that somebody could walk on water. They don’t have this concept of natural law that we have.

What is the state of the secularization thesis? 

Bart Ehrman:

I think the history of religion in the world today is very interesting, partly because it’s so regional. In most of Europe, the world is becoming secularized so that in England or France, you go into a large cathedral, fantastic, you can’t believe the beauty, and there are 12 people in there worshiping for Sunday morning, whereas in parts of America, you have mega churches.

And so I don’t think that necessarily the world is becoming secularized. I think parts of the world are becoming more religious and even in America, there are more agnostic and atheists than ever, but also, the mega churches are growing. What’s the interesting phenomenon in America, I think, is that over the past 50 years, the greatest growth have been in the conservative churches and the loss has been in mainly the liberal, mainline churches. And the very simple explanation for that, the most simple explanation for that is that the liberal churches believe in asking questions and the very conservative churches believe in giving answers and people prefer certitude to uncertainty. And so, that’s where people are flocking.

How important is balancing the federal budget?

Bart Ehrman:

Do I think it’s important to balance the budget? Well, the obvious problem with not balancing the budget is eventually somebody’s got to pay the piper. And so it’s a very complicated thing. Economists, of course, argue about this, and I’m not an economist. I do think the function of government is to help people, and that it certainly needs to be streamlined. There certainly is a lot of waste. And in my opinion, you shouldn’t hurt people in order to develop defense strategies, that you shouldn’t be building bombs when you can’t even feed your own people. Of course, you have to build bombs. We have to have a national defense, absolutely. But there’s a lot of waste there. And I think actually, our priorities are all messed up.

Can we apply today’s moral standards to the past?

Bart Ehrman:

I think it’s very difficult for people with very strong moral values, ethical values, to resonate with and to be non-judgmental about people in the past who had different values. We have seen in our own lifetime how values change, so that what is common sense now, is not what was common sense even 30 years ago. What do you do about people who live 200 years ago, or 2,000 years ago, who don’t share our moral values? How do you try to appreciate what they’re actually thinking, and what’s driving them without judging them for not being at 21st century American?

It’s almost impossible to do. And there have to be, there obviously have to be some kind of standards. I’m disgusted that the Romans used to take criminals and throw them to wild animals. It’s absolutely disgusting. But moral teachers back then, some of them didn’t mind that, they thought that was all right. And so, how do you even get your mind around it? But the reality is, in 40 or 50 years from today, everybody’s going to be judging things that we do today that we don’t think are problematic. That we simply assume are okay and we don’t know what those things are. But in 40 or 50 years people are going to be mocking us.

Are you a postmodernist?

Bart Ehrman:

Am I a postmodernist? Now, this is a very interesting question in part, because a lot of people don’t know what postmodernism is. So I’m going to give a confusing answer, which is this. In many ways I am a postmodernist. I don’t believe, for example, in strictly speaking objective truth. I think the truth is situational. I think that there are not some kind of objective standards out there to follow because I don’t think such things exist. Postmodernism is a complicated thing, so it would take three hours to unpack it all. But so I’m just taking one aspect of it.

On the other hand, my scholarship is really interested in trying to establish what happened in the past based on evidence. Some of my postmodernist friends are not only uninterested in that, they don’t think that is an appropriate line of inquiry. I think it’s a perfectly fine line of inquiry. I think that every line of inquiry is a perfectly fine line of inquiry. And so my historical practices are not particularly postmodern, even though my personal ideology is postmodern. Figure that one out.

Doug Monroe:

We’d need two more hours-

Bart Ehrman:

Exactly.

Doug Monroe:

… to the conversation.

Is it ok to spread good news?

Bart Ehrman:

I personally have no trouble with people evangelizing others. I think I agree with a friend of mine from graduate school, who used to say that, he said, “I believe in the right to be converted and to convert, and so you’re free to tell me your views and I’ll tell you mine.” Where I think it gets problematic is claiming that, “I know the truth and you don’t. There’s one truth, I have it.” How is that anything but arrogant?

It used to be my view and I didn’t try to be arrogant at the time. I simply thought, “Well, I’ve given a gift and I think other people should have this gift,” but deep down it meant, “I’m right, you’re wrong, and if you don’t agree with me, you’re going to go to hell.” “Really? You know this?” “Well yeah, it’s in the Bible.” “Really? Where is that in the Bible exactly?” “Well, you look at these.” In fact, no, this is just people wanting to be right the whole time. What’s really interesting in the history of religion, is that in ancient religion, no such thing existed. This idea that if I’m right, you’re wrong. This is an invention of the Christians and it’s not the best invention.

Doug Monroe:

Probably guilty as charged there.

Are you optimistic or pessimistic about America? 

Bart Ehrman:

As a rule, I tend to be an optimist rather than a pessimist. I think back in my fundamentalist days, I was firmly committed to the idea that people are inherently sinners and evil. And I don’t share that view anymore. I think that there is good in people and that ultimately good can triumph. In our current political situation, I have to admit that I’m pessimistic. I think that the moral values that I support are not supported by people in power now, and that the idea that it is okay to assert power over the weak has become the dominant political ideology. And that it’s evident not only in our foreign policies, but in our domestic policies. My view is that if people want to adopt those views, that we, as Americans should dominate everyone else and we as rich Americans should dominate the poor Americans.

We who are fortunate should dominate the unfortunate, if we do want to have that ideology, I think that we should admit it’s not Christian. A Christian ideology is one that says, “I am going to be concerned about the other, and I’m not going to dominate them.” I, myself am not a believing Christian because I don’t believe in God, I’m an agnostic, but I sometimes call myself a Christian agnostic because I believe in following the principles of Jesus, that you should love your neighbor as yourself and your neighbor isn’t simply the guy that lives next door, it’s not just the woman in your city, it’s not just the person who happens also to be an American. It’s anyone in need throughout the world. And if we don’t care for those who are in need in my view, we’re no longer Christian. And I’m simply hopeful that the country doesn’t go that way. I hope that the deeply rooted American values that we’ve always cherished don’t disappear, that we don’t become the Roman empire, but that we remain in that moral sense, a Christian nation.

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Website:

https://www.bartehrman.com/

Blog:

https://ehrmanblog.org/

Ehrman Project:

https://ehrmanproject.com/

Books:

https://www.bartehrman.com/books-published/

God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question—Why We Suffer:

https://www.bartehrman.com/gods-problem/

Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium:

https://www.bartehrman.com/jesus-apocalyptic-prophet-of-the-new-millennium/

Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible: https://www.bartehrman.com/jesus-interrupted/

YouTube Channel: https://www.youtube.com/c/bartdehrman

Overview

Bart Ehrman

Dr. Bart Ehrman is the James A. Gray Distinguished Professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. A magna cum laude graduate of Wheaton College (1978), he earned both his M.Div. (1981) and his Ph.D. (1985), again magna cum laude, at Princeton Seminary. Dr. Ehrman is an expert on the New Testament and the history of Early Christianity. Praxis Circle interviewed Dr. Ehrman because of his global reputation as a scholar of Christianity, having followed him closely since first publishing.
Transcript

A religion professor at UNC for 30 years!

 Bart Ehrman:

I started teaching at Rutgers University of New Jersey and I liked the students there a lot. I liked Rutgers a lot. When I moved to UNC, it was completely different kind of experience because Rutgers, most of my students were not overly committed Christians. Very few of them were evangelical Christians of any kind. When I came to UNC, of course, lots of students come from North Carolina, most of them been raised in the church, usually in some kind of conservative church. And in many ways it’s made teaching much more interesting, in part because students already have a vested interest in the topic. When I teach New Testament or early Christianity, the kind of scholarship I present is usually at odds in some ways with things that these students have grown up on and so it’s challenging to them, but it’s especially challenging because they already have a vested interest and a firm opinion.

When that’s challenged, because their religious background and religious knowledge is so important to them, that it forces them to think about it. It’s unlike almost any other subject in the curriculum at UNC or anywhere else. When my wife teaches Chaucer, she’s an English scholar, nobody who takes her class has an opinion about the Miller’s Tale ahead of time so she can’t disabuse them of something. Whereas my students, if I talk about problems in the gospels and maybe historical problems and how it’s hard to know what Jesus really said and did, or did Paul really write this letter or not? This is completely new material for them and it’s at odds with what they’ve always thought and so they’re forced to think about it. Since one of the points of a university education is to get students to learn how to think, teaching religion in the South is perfect because it forces students to think. For me, it’s been a great experience. Plus the UNC students are fantastic or they’re really bright, they’re really interesting, they’ve got interesting lives, and they’ve got interesting stories, and so it’s been a terrific experience for me.

How has your worldview changed?

Bart Ehrman:

I know a lot of people who think that changing their mind about something of central importance to them is some kind of flaw. And that’s never been my opinion. I’ve always thought that if you come to think differently about something important to you, that can actually be a good thing. And I’ve absolutely experienced that in my life. I was raised in a Christian household. We were Episcopalians, went to church every week, said grace before dinner, but other than that we weren’t particularly religious. When I was in high school, when I was 15 years old, I started associating with a Youth for Christ group in my high school because some of my friends were in it and I thought that it was interesting. And through that, I had a born-again experience. The leader of this group was probably in his mid-20s, who was a very charismatic personality, very forceful, who convinced me that even though I’d gone to church my whole life, I wasn’t really a Christian because I hadn’t made a personal commitment to Christ as my Lord and Savior. And he convinced me I needed to do that to be a real Christian. And of course I wanted to be a real Christian, and so I did that.

I was a pretty good student in high school. I wasn’t a superstar or anything but I was pretty good and so I had some choices about where to go to college. And I was debating between going to Kansas University to be on the debate team or to go to Moody Bible Institute where this fellow, this 20-something fellow named Bruce, had gone. And he convinced me that if I was going to be a real Christian I would go to a serious Christian school. And so I went to Moody Bible Institute. Moody is a fundamentalist Bible college. They believe that the Bible has no mistakes of any kind whatsoever, it’s completely inerrant in everything it says. And I found this both convincing and compelling and so I devoted my life to studying the Bible.

When I finished the three year degree there I went off to Wheaton College which is a liberal arts college, an evangelical college, Billy Graham’s alma mater. There I majored in English and I studied Greek as my ancient language and I decided that I really wanted to pursue Greek at a graduate level. So when I graduated from Wheaton I applied to go to Princeton Theological Seminary where the world’s expert on Greek manuscripts was teaching, a man named Bruce Metzger. I wanted to study with him and so I went to Princeton Theological Seminary. And it was there at Princeton, as I was studying the Bible, the New Testament, in Greek, I learned Hebrew so I studied the old Testament in Hebrew, as I studied it more and more intensely, I started realizing that in fact there are mistakes in the Bible. There are contradictions, there are geographical mistakes, there are historical errors. And I had to change my views about the Bible. And this led me on the path to become more of a liberal Christian, rather than a fundamentalist Christian.

Then what really changed your Christian worldview?

Bart Ehrman:

During my graduate career, when I was studying the Bible and getting a PhD in New Testament Studies at Princeton Theological Seminary, my views about the faith were evolving. I came to think that the Bible wasn’t a perfect book, that there were errors in it. But I continued to be a believing Christian. I went to church every week. I was actually a pastor of a Baptist church in Princeton, New Jersey. I preached every week and did the churchly duties. But I was a fairly liberal Christian, and I remained that for a number of years. I ended up teaching at Rutgers University, and at Rutgers, I was asked to teach a class called The Problem of Suffering in the Biblical Traditions. I thought this would be a great class to teach, because I had long thought that all of the authors of the Bible in one way or another are wrestling with a problem of why they’re suffering in the world.

If there’s a God who created this world is good, and he’s ultimately sovereign over this world, how do you explain the fact that there’s so much pain and misery in it? And the Bible has a number of different answers to this. I thought this would be a great class to teach because it’s a way of introducing students to the variety of views within the Bible about a particularly important topic. And when I taught the class it became clear, even to the students, that different authors had different answers to this problem of suffering. This got me to thinking myself, personally, about how I was trying to resolve the fact that there’s so much suffering in a world controlled by God. I did all the reading. I knew what the biblical scholar said and what the theologian said. I read what the philosopher said. I read massively.

After about 10 years of thinking about this, I finally got to a point where I simply said, “I don’t believe it.” I know the answers. I know about free will. I mean, I know the various things, and I don’t think that there’s a God who’s in charge of this world, who answers prayer, who intervenes when people need him, because most people who need him don’t get any intervention at all. I mean, it’s nice that I do, because I live a very good life. But what about all these people starving to death, or all these people killed in an earthquake, or a tsunami or a hurricane? And so probably about 25 years ago, I just decided, I simply can’t believe it anymore, and that’s when I became an agnostic.

Why is freedom such an issue in the West?

Doug Monroe:

Very cool. And I think just as an aside, when the world went from being pagan, polytheistic to mono, that created the problem.

Bart Ehrman:

Absolutely, created the problem.

Doug Monroe:

For the early church founders. They immediately gravitated…

Bart Ehrman:

Yeah, because the polytheist had no problem. You just say the bad gods are doing it.

Doug Monroe:

Yeah, exactly. They’re bad gods are good gods. What’s the problem?

Bart Ehrman:

Yeah, right.

Doug Monroe:

Okay, I’d go along with that. But it also is why I would argue freedom is such a thing in the West. Okay. But this is a great statement you made-

Are you agnostic, atheist, or materialist?

Bart Ehrman:

When I was realizing that I was losing my faith, I was trying to understand where that would take me. My idea, at the time, was the idea that most people seem to have today, which is that the two major choices are to be an agnostic or an atheist and that these are two degrees of the same thing.

When I actually became an agnostic, I realized that a lot of agnostic and atheists also think this, and they’re very militaristic about their own terms. So atheists basically think that agnostics are wimpy atheists. They’re really atheists, but they’re afraid to admit it, and so they just say, “I don’t know” because they’re being wimpy about it. Agnostics, on the other hand, think that all atheists are simply arrogant agnostics because they’re claiming, “There’s no God.” Well, how would they know? They don’t know. And so they’re just being arrogant about it.

So that was the view I brought in, and it’s a view I no longer have. I don’t think that agnosticism and atheism actually are two degrees of something. I think they are two different things. Agnosticism… the word agnostic comes from the Greek word that means “don’t know,” and it has to do with knowledge. If somebody were to ask me, “Do you know whether there’s a superior divine being in the universe,” I’d say, “No, I don’t know. How would I know?”

Atheism, though, isn’t about knowledge. It’s about belief, theism. It’s about belief. Do you believe there’s a superior power in the universe? No, I absolutely don’t believe it. And so I consider myself to be both an agnostic and an atheist at the same time.

My own view now, as it’s developed over the years, is that of a fairly rigorous materialist. I think that this material world is all there is. I don’t think that we have a soul that’s separate from our body, that we have a mind that’s separate from our brain. I don’t think that when we die, we continue to exist in any way. I think this world is going to end. There will no longer be life on earth and that probably, there won’t be any life in the universe as soon as it expands enough over some many billions of years. Life will cease, and there’s nothing beyond it. And so I’m a fairly complete materialist.

What and where is consciousness to you?

Bart Ehrman:

Of course, scientists wrestle strongly with what consciousness is, and there are lots of opinions by some very smart people. And the reality is, we don’t really know. But I do agree with those scholars, those scientists who say that in some way or another it has to do with the functioning of the brain. They haven’t narrowed it down yet because there are lots of opinions about it, but it’s located in the brain, it’s a material process, that there’s not something outside the brain that is providing consciousness for you.

Did a changed worldview change your politics?

Bart Ehrman:

I was raised in Kansas, in a conservative household that was in addition to being ethically, morally conservative, religiously conservative was also politically conservative. And so I was raised a Republican, my parents were Republican, and that was my environment.

When I went to college, as I went on in college and then into graduate school, I started realizing that for me, the democratic party embraced the Christian values I had at the time. And that the democratic party was more interested, in my opinion at the time, in helping out the poor and the needy and developing social programs to help those who couldn’t help themselves. And so my senior year in college, I moved to the democratic side of that. And I’d say, I’ve continued to move since then. I have a very liberal social values. And for me, just speaking personally, so I don’t try and push this on anyone else, but me speaking personally, I think that it’s very hard to understand what’s happening in this country when there are so many Christians who don’t seem to care about the issues that are important to Jesus and the new Testament, and the old Testament.

The ethical issues people care about today, the moral issues of the far right, such as the second amendment and immigration and abortion, these are issues that are not even in the Bible. The Bible is about helping people in need, and the Bible doesn’t draw national boundaries, the Bible doesn’t say that if you are from Columbia, you’re less important than if you’re from Columbus. It doesn’t say that. It says that all people are important. And I think that people who are trying to be genuinely Christian ought to take the ethics of the new Testament more seriously, and be more concerned about the welfare of others, rather than their own nationalistic interests.

Off program comments

Doug Monroe:

Good answer.

Bart Ehrman:

I’ll get shot for that one.

Doug Monroe:

Now, I’m going to… What’s that?

Bart Ehrman:

I said, I’ll get shot for that one.

Doug Monroe:

No you won’t, no you won’t. But you will see this interview before it goes live, to the extent you want to look at it. Just give me your comments, whatever you…

Bart Ehrman:

It’s all right. I actually never watch interviews. I don’t because I was on TV once many years ago and I said something really stupid and my wife thought it was the funniest thing she’d ever heard. So I just, I never ever watch. She just laughed and laughed at me.

What Christian positions are most objectionable to outsiders?

Doug Monroe:

Okay. I list them. The absolute literal inerrancy of the Bible, the absolute need for faith in Christ among all other worldviews for salvation, the importance of believing in key miracles, you know, like the bodily resurrection, the existence in nature of heaven, hell, and evil, the need for and in timing of the eschaton, the basic moral principles surrounding marriage and sex. Is that fairly comprehensive.

Bart Ehrman:

I would say people who are not associated with a Christian tradition and have never been raised in the Christian tradition, find some aspects of Christianity more puzzling than others, and even somewhat ludicrous. The idea that the Bible has no mistakes of any kind whatsoever strikes most outsiders as just craziness. Many outsiders can understand some of the ethical positions of Christianity, and they might completely disagree about things like extramarital sex, but at least they can kind of understand what it’s about. But there are other things that many Christians hold to such as the idea that Jesus is going to come back sometime within our lifetime, probably sometime next Thursday, that strikes most outsiders as ludicrous. But there are other things that are not quite as ludicrous. There are a lot of people in the world who believe in miracle who aren’t Christian. And so that isn’t as big of a stumbling block for many people, but especially fundamentalist Christianity, I think, is considered somewhat risible by most outsiders.

Do Christians believe the Bible is literally inerrant? 

Bart Ehrman:

It’s very interesting living in the south, which I’ve done for over 30 years now, because a lot of people in the south, a lot of good Christians in the south think that Christianity means believing in the Bible. And by that, most people mean you have to believe that the Bible doesn’t have any mistakes in it. If you think Bible has any mistakes in it, you can’t really be a Christian. As a historian of Christianity, I realize how strange this view is, because throughout the vast majority of Christian history, nobody thought that.

This is a very modern construction that came about in the end of the 19th century. The idea that the Bible is inherent and you have to believe in the Bible. In reality, the church fathers going all the way back, not just to Augustine in the fourth and fifth centuries, but going back to origin, before him, and they didn’t have this doctrine of the inherency of the Bible, it’s a modern construction. And so the idea that you have to believe in the Bible to be a Christian is from a historical point of view, completely bogus.

An overview of potential problems in the Bible?

Bart Ehrman:

I can try. That’s a lot.

Doug Monroe:

It’s a lot.

Bart Ehrman:

Yeah, that’s more than a semester’s course. So, yeah, I’ll try and do it quickly.

So when I was a Bible believing fundamentalist Christian, we thought that there were no mistakes of any kind in the Bible. As I started studying the Bible from a scholarly point of view, starting at Princeton Theological Seminary, where I was training to be a minister, but they were academic there and they had scholarship behind what they thought, I began to realize that in fact, the Bible does have serious problems. When you compare two accounts of the same event in the Bible, you’ll often find contradictions. If you read closely what the Bible has to say about historical events and compare them with what we know about history from other sources, it looks like there are mistakes. There are parts of the Bible that are attributed to people who almost certainly could not have written them.

Moses did not write the first five books of the Old Testament. There are sources behind it that had been around for hundreds of years before somebody came together. Now, in that case, there’s no deceit involved because the author of those five books doesn’t claim to be Moses. Only later people said, “Well, it was Moses.” But you have other books in the Bible, especially in the New Testament where an author actually claims to be somebody other than who he is. We have 13 letters that claim to be written by Paul. Six of them probably were not written by Paul. When I started thinking this and started realizing this, what we said to ourselves to explain it was, “Well, that was okay in the ancient world. People just did that kind of thing and nobody thought badly of it.” And that’s what I thought until I actually looked into it.

And it turns out ancient people did think badly about it. They called this lying. It was a kind of deceit. In fact, they called books like this lies. What do we do about the fact that we have books that claim to be written by Paul and by Peter and by James and by Jude that actually were written by people falsely claiming to be these people? Well, modern people would call those forgeries. Most scholars are reluctant to call them forgeries if they’re in the New Testament, but that’s just because they’re in the New Testament. If they weren’t in the New Testament, they wouldn’t have the same qualms. But these are some of the problems that we have with the Bible that simply come out by doing historical analysis of them.

Does this mean the Bible can’t be the inspired word of God?

Bart Ehrman:

A lot of my students at Chapel Hill who are raised in conservative Christian households are upset when they find out there are contradictions in the Bible. And that scholars saying some of the books weren’t written by the people who claim to be writing them, and that there are other kinds of mistakes. And they conclude from that the Bible therefore cannot be inspired by God. That’s actually not my opinion. I’m not a believer myself, I don’t believe in God. But theoretically, there’s no reason why God can’t inspire a book that has mistakes in it. If God created the world, the world certainly has mistakes in it.

So I know a number of people who are devout Christians trained as theologians, who are pastors of churches who acknowledge that the Bible has mistakes in it. Their belief isn’t based on the Bible, their belief is based on their faith in Christ. So the idea that the Bible has mistakes, one shouldn’t reject that because it has to be inspired. It could be inspired and still have mistakes.

Is the Bible more a narrative than a deposition?

Bart Ehrman:

One of the problems for fundamentalist readers of the Bible is that fundamentalists, oddly enough, tend to have a post-Enlightenment understanding of truth. You would think that the Enlightenment, which was challenging the faith, wouldn’t be employed by people who accept the faith so vehemently, but in fact, understandings of truth as objective is completely an Enlightenment idea, and fundamentalist hold onto that. That means that if there’s a mistake in the Bible, if they were convinced of a mistake, they’d feel like they have to give the whole thing up.

Another way to look at it is that we all tell ourselves stories when we try to make sense of our lives and our past. And we now know from memory studies, the studies of memory by psychologists and by other experts in these fields that in fact, when tell stories to ourselves, we often misrepresent the past. We may not think we are, we may not know we are, but we do. All of us do.

And in some ways, the Bible is like a story that’s being retold. It would not be surprising at all that some of the past gets changed in the retelling. That’s how we function as human beings. And so I think rather than a post-Enlightenment understanding that there has to be objective truth, we maybe should think about truth more as narrative, more as, “This is how we tell ourselves stories, and we live in certain stories” and for Christians, Christians live within the story of the Bible as it’s being implemented in the current world. So it’s really more about narrative rather than objective truth.

What was Jesus’ historical context?

Bart Ehrman:

One of the most significant developments of scholarship about the New Testament, over the past century, has been the recognition that to understand Jesus and his disciples, you have to put them in their own historical context. They’re not living in our context. They’re not 21st century Americans. They’re first century Jews from Galilee. Jesus ends up being crucified in Judea, in Jerusalem, by a Roman governor of the land.

Without understanding the Roman policies of rule in Palestine, we can’t understand what Jesus and his followers were dealing with. The Romans, of course, were very harsh. They believed in keeping the peace with great strength. They would squash any rebellion. And any uprising was immediately taken out, or any threat of an uprising was immediately taken out. The Romans basically wanted no uprisings, and they wanted taxes. And any governor who could bring those things was fine.

The Roman governor Pontius Pilate was supposed to keep the peace, raise the taxes. Jesus was accused of calling himself the future king of the Jews. So they had to crucify him. They crucified him. This led to the beginning of Christianity. What’s interesting is that Christianity ended up advocating a completely different ideology from the Roman ideology. No longer did Christians think that dominance was the way to interact with people. They thought that charity was; that you take care of those who are in need. And this developed into an entirely different way of looking at the world that sprung out of this dominance-focused Roman Empire.

What about the disciples as martyrs?

Bart Ehrman:

Almost every semester, I have students come up and tell me that they know that Jesus was raised from the dead and that Christianity must be true because we know that all of the Disciples believed this and died for it, that they were martyred for believing this, and nobody would die for a lie.

It’s an interesting idea. It’s a view that I used to support myself when I was a conservative Christian. There are several problems with it, but one is a reality that my students have never thought of, which is how do we know how the Disciples died? They simply assume it’s in the Bible, but it’s not in the Bible. The Apostle James is said to be killed in the Bible by King Herod, but we’re not told why. We don’t know if it’s because of his belief in a resurrection or not.

Peter is predicted to be killed. But again, we don’t know the details of his death, and we don’t know why or how all of the others died. There are references later to Paul being martyred. But other than that, what we have are later legends from the second, the third, the fourth century, in other words, hundreds of years later, and so we don’t know how they died. They may have been martyred, but we don’t have evidence of it.

So when people say all the Disciples are martyred for the faith, we actually don’t know that.

Are Gospel inconsistencies new information?

Bart Ehrman:

When I teach the New Testament to my undergraduates, a lot of them wonder why didn’t other people see these problems. You have contradictions and historical mistakes, and didn’t ancient Christian scholars see these things? And the answer is a little bit complicated because there absolutely were scholars in the early centuries of Christianity who realized that there were problems, especially with the gospels, that there are places where they seem to disagree with each other and different scholars had different ways of approaching that.

One way to approach it was to try and reconcile them all, like modern people often do. One sort of will say one thing, one will say the opposite thing, and you somehow try to reconcile them.

Other scholars in the early church actually said the reason there are contradictions is because God put the contradictions there so you’d realize that both statements can’t be literally true and that shows you, you have to understand these texts figuratively, spiritually, rather than literally, which is not an acceptable solution to most modern Christians. There are other people who did what many modern Christians do, which is simply not even notice.

I find that most of the problems in the New Testament that I identify my students, my students may have read this passage a hundred times and they simply haven’t seen it in until you point out this doesn’t work if that is true. They see that and they say, “Oh my God. Why didn’t I see that?” Well, people don’t see it because they’re not expecting it. You often don’t see what you don’t expect.

Is Christianity a religion of or about Jesus?

Bart Ehrman:

Probably every Christian in history has assumed that his or her religious beliefs are the ones taught by Jesus himself. One of the most interesting and important discoveries of scholarship over the last 100, 150 years is that Jesus has to be understood his own context as a first century, Palestinian Jew who had points of view that may not coincide with modern points of view, but also may not have coincided with the views of his later followers.

When you compare what Jesus has to say about how to have salvation with what the apostle Paul says about how to have salvation, it’s actually very difficult to reconcile these two views. I’m not saying they’re contradictory, but they are certainly different. When a man comes up to Jesus and says, “What must I do to have eternal life?” Jesus says, “Keep the commandments.” In other words, follow the Jewish law. The man says, “Well, which ones?” “Well, don’t murder. Don’t commit adultery.” He goes through the commandments.

Then he says, “But if you really want to be perfect, give everything away and then you’ll have treasure in heaven. After you do that, then you can follow me.” When somebody comes up to Paul and says, “What must I do to be saved?” Paul does not say keep the commandments. Paul says keeping the commandments will not save you. Following the law has nothing to do with your salvation. It’s believing in the death and resurrection of Jesus.

Well, if Jesus was right that you could have eternal life by following the law, how can Paul be right that following the law isn’t going to make… So that’s why it’s scholars, since the end of the 19th century, have sometimes pointed out that Christianity, as it developed, is not so much the religion of Jesus, the religion that Jesus had, as it is the religion about Jesus.

How to label Jesus?

Bart Ehrman:

It’s always very difficult to label a person as being one thing or another. Sure, somebody is politically far right or sure, somebody is a Presbyterian or sure, somebody is a faithful father. But in fact, all of us are many different things and so is Jesus. And so it’s difficult to put a label on Jesus and say he was this. But if what you’re interested in knowing is what was the focus of his message and mission, then it’s somewhat less difficult. Scholars have studied for a long time what we can say about the historical Jesus himself, what he actually said, and what he was trying to accomplish for over a century. The most popular view among scholars, not among lay folk but among scholars, is the one popularized by Albert Schweitzer, the great humanitarian who won the Nobel Peace prize, who was also a theologian, who insisted that Jesus is best understood as an apocalyptic prophet.

What that means is that Jesus was somebody who believed that God had told him that this evil world he was living in then, was soon going to come to a halt. That God was going to intervene in history to destroy the forces of evil and bring in a good kingdom on earth, the kingdom of God. Jesus expected this to happen within his own lifetime. That continues to be the majority view among scholars today in America and Europe. And so the label wanted to put on that as an apocalyptic prophet, somebody who predicts that the apocalypse is soon to come.

What was different about Jesus’ teachings?

Bart Ehrman:

There wasn’t one form of Judaism. There wasn’t something… they didn’t even use the term Orthodox for what it was that different people believed. There are different kinds of Judaism. One of the tricks is figuring out how Jesus fits into this mix.

The reality is that virtually everything the historical Jesus himself taught can be found in the teachings of other Jewish teachers of the day. When I say that, what I mean is not that Jesus in the Gospels teaches only what other Jewish teachers. What I’m saying is the historical Jesus himself taught only things found in other Jewish teachers. Later, Christians who told stories about Jesus’ teachings altered them in places to make them sound more Christian. So I don’t think Jesus was really teaching a Christian message. I think He was a first century Jew. He’s teaching Jewish men. And so His message wasn’t different from what you find in a lot of Jews.

And so then the question is why Christianity then? If there are other Jews teaching the same thing, why don’t they have religions founded on them? And I think that there’s a very easy answer to that, which is Jesus was believed to be raised from the dead. His followers thought He was resurrected and that was true of none of the other Jewish leaders of His day. His followers came to be convinced that He had, in fact, been the Messiah and that changed everything, so that Christianity, in some sense, doesn’t actually begin with the teachings of Jesus. If Jesus had taught what He taught and then died and disappeared, you wouldn’t have Christianity. Even if Jesus was raised from the dead and nobody believed it, you wouldn’t have Christianity because nobody would’ve believed it. Christianity is built on the belief in Jesus’ resurrection, not on Jesus’ teaching themselves.

Off program comments

Doug Monroe:

I’m trying to decide whether this is worth it, how far we can get. Okay. Just a little bit of a, if you don’t have anything to say about this, you can pass on it.

Bart Ehrman:

Okay.

Doug Monroe:

But I’m giving a little bit of devil’s advocate to N.T. Wright saying that the idea that the world would end tomorrow, it may be hard to explain all of Jesus’s parables about the long term.

Bart Ehrman:

Uh-huh (affirmative).

Doug Monroe:

Same with Paul.

Bart Ehrman:

Yeah.

Doug Monroe:

Why would Paul go to all this trouble if he thought-

Bart Ehrman:

Yeah, yeah.

Doug Monroe:

It was going to be over in a week.

Bart Ehrman:

Absolutely able to answer that question.

Doug Monroe:

Okay.

Bart Ehrman:

Do you want me to name Tom Wright?

Doug Monroe:

Yes. Yeah. I admire him personally, so …

Bart Ehrman:

Oh no, no. He’s a great scholar. He’s a great scholar. I just happen to disagree with him on this one.

Doug Monroe:

Okay. Okay.

Why was Jesus an apocalyptic prophet to you?

Bart Ehrman:

There are scholars today who question whether Jesus expected the end of history as we know it in his lifetime. He tells a number of parables that seem to presuppose that his followers are in it for the long term. Doesn’t that show that he didn’t really believe that the son of man was soon to arrive from heaven and judgment on the earth. My view is that you have to look at every teaching of Jesus separately and individually to decide, is that something he really said, or not. This isn’t my view. It is my view, but it’s not … When I came up with … This has been around for a hundred years. You have to decide which teachings of Jesus actually go back to him, and which ones were put on his lips by his later followers.

The gospels that we have from later Christianity are written 40, 50 or 60 years later by people who know that the end was not going to come in Jesus’ lifetime. Would they be inclined to make up sayings of Jesus that indicate that the end is not supposed to come in his lifetime? Of course, they would, because they knew it didn’t come in his lifetime. Would they be likely to make up sayings of Jesus where he indicates that the end was coming in his lifetime? No, they wouldn’t make that sort of thing up, because it hadn’t come in their lifetime. Which means the sayings of Jesus that show that the end is soon are likely to be the ones that he actually said. Jesus certainly thought the end was coming very soon. He told his disciples that some of you are not going to die before you see it happen.

He said that his generation would not pass away before all of this takes place. That was his teaching. And by the way, it was the teaching of Paul too, the Apostle Paul. Why would Paul be so urgent in his Christian mission, if he thought that it’s going to end very soon. Paul was urgent in his mission, precisely because he thought it was going to end very soon. People had to convert or they were going to be destroyed when judgment day came and it’s going to be sometime next month. And so Paul was urgent to get the message out there, but precisely the imminent end that’s driving this urgency.

What is true about Jesus?

Bart Ehrman:

Even though the gospels are filled with problems of contradictions and historical mistakes and words put on Jesus lips, that he didn’t actually say all of the findings of modern scholarship, even though that’s true, there is still a good deal of the gospels that is historically reliable, that I think we know Jesus said and did. You can’t simply pick your favorite parts and say, “Well, he probably said that or he probably did that”. It takes rigorous analysis. You actually have to know the ancient languages to do it in a very serious way. And there are scholars who spend their entire lives doing this. And so it isn’t simply a matter of picking and choosing. It’s actually engaging in historical analysis. But among the things that I think we can say with relative certainty, Jesus certainly existed. He was a Jewish preacher from Galilee. He collected disciples around him.

He taught them his understanding of the law of Moses and his view of what God was doing in the world. Jesus almost certainly thought that the evil age he lived in was going to come to an end soon and that people needed to repent and prepare for this coming end, and their preparation for it involved doing the things that God wanted them to do. For Jesus, that wasn’t simply following a group of little commandments here and there or making sure you crossed all the Ts and dotted all the Is. For Jesus it was a matter of following the major principles, which for him were: You should love God above all else and you should love your neighbor as yourself. And that if you do those things and you are completely committed to God, then you will be saved when this coming end arrives.

There’s a lot of in that message that can be translated today, into our world. It’s a message of being more concerned about other people than for ourselves. Taking care of those who are needy, taking care of those who are hungry and homeless and dealing with the current situation. And a lot of people today think the world is going to end soon. Maybe not because the Son of Man is coming back in glory, but maybe we’re going to blow ourselves off the planet or maybe climate change is going to change. And in light of the fact that the end is coming soon, one way or the other, this is how we ought to behave. And so I think in fact, this can translate not only for those who are committed Christians, but for anybody living in our world today.

What about the Gospel’s resurrection accounts?

Bart Ehrman:

One of the most certain facts about Jesus’s life has to do with his death. On the basis of a rigorous historical analysis, there can’t be really any question at all.

Jesus was crucified on orders of Pontius Pilate, the governor of Judea. He was crucified for making a political claim to be the king of the Jews. That’s the charge brought up at the trial. That’s what’s written on the placard over his head at the crucifixion. It’s the reason they crucified him.

If somebody claims to be a rival king, rival to Rome, then the Roman simply killed him publicly in a very painful way. They crucified him. And so there’s little doubt that’s the charge brought against Jesus, is that he is calling himself the king of the Jews, which in Jewish circles, the way you call yourself the future king, is you call yourself the Messiah.

The term Messiah for Jews referred to the one who was anointed by God to be the future ruler. The Hebrew word, Mashiach, Messiah, literally means anointed one. The king is anointed to be king.

Jesus is claiming to be the future king. Pilate hears of it, has him crucified. So there’s no doubt about that.

In the gospels, after Jesus is crucified, he’s buried by Joseph of Arimathea, and three days later, on the third day, some women come to the tomb, find that it’s empty, and they come to believe that he’s been raised from the dead.

My view about this is that we’re sure about the crucifixion. I don’t think we can be sure that he was buried by Joseph of Arimathea. The Roman policies were not to allow crucified criminals to be buried decently as part of the humiliation. They let them decay on the cross to be subject to wild scavengers.

It’s almost impossible for us to believe that Jesus could possibly have been left on the cross, but that’s what the Romans do with virtually everybody else of the many, many, many thousands of people they crucified, and so I don’t think they made an exception because they knew that Jesus was the son of God. Maybe they made an exception, but it seems unlikely.

Why then do you have these stories about Jesus is being buried? Because 40 years later, and even before that, Christians who are telling the stories know that he has to be raised from the dead. There can’t be an empty tomb unless there’s a tomb, and so he has to be buried.

My suspicion is that Christians came up with the story of the burial. My further suspicion is that nobody came to believe that Jesus was raised from the dead because they knew about an empty tomb.

In the New Testament, when anybody finds an empty tomb, they don’t think Jesus has been raised from the dead. They’re confused. They don’t understand.

That makes sense. If you put somebody in a tomb and you come back three days later and the tomb is empty, your first thought is not, “Oh, he’s been exalted to heaven and sitting at the right hand of the Father.”

Your first thought is, “Grave robbers,” or you think, “Hey, I’m at the wrong tomb here.”

So the empty tomb doesn’t convince anybody. In the gospels what convinces people is they have visions of Jesus. They see him alive afterwards, and I think that’s why the early Christians started believing in Jesus, is because some of Jesus followers said they saw him and that convinced people and it started the resurrection belief, which began Christianity.

How did Jesus become a Christian god?

Bart Ehrman:

It’s clear from our earliest Gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, that Jesus’ disciples did not consider him to be God while he was alive. It’s also clear from later writings that after they came to believe in his resurrection, they did believe he was God in some sense. They didn’t think he was God the Father, but in some sense, he’s God. This is hard for us to conceptualize in the modern world, but in the ancient world, it makes perfect sense. In the ancient world, we know of a number of human beings who are said at the end of their lives to be taken up to heaven. This is in Greek and Roman mythology. It’s actually in Jewish circles. It’s also in the New Testament. Jesus is taken up to heaven. When somebody is taken up to heaven, they dwell in the heavenly realm and they’re made a divine being. The early Christians who believed Jesus was taken up to heaven believed he was a divine being, that God had made him divine.

Over time, as they began thinking more and more about it, they thought, “Well, he must not have been made God just after he died. He must have been God during his ministry because of all his miracles.” And so then they started thinking, “Well, when he was baptized, God made him divine.” “You are my son. Today, I have begotten you.” And as they thought out about it more, they thought, “Well, it wasn’t just during his ministry. It was during his life.” And so when he was born of a virgin in two of our later Gospels, he’s born of a Virgin because God is literally his father. His mother’s a virgin. So he is the son of God from his birth. As they thought about it more, it isn’t just during his birth. He must have always been God.

And so already in the New Testament you have the idea that Jesus is a divine being before he comes into the world. As time goes on, Christians think more and more about this. When you start moving into the later centuries, into the Third and the Fourth Century, there are theologians with deep philosophical training who come to believe that, in fact, Christ is not simply a divine being next to God the father. There’s only one God. Christ and the father are one. It’s not that they’re the same, but they’re equal. And this begins then the development of the Doctrine of the Trinity that you start getting in the fourth and fifth Christian centuries.

How do your 2 books about Jesus becoming God/the rise of Christianity differ?

Bart Ehrman:

In my book, How Jesus Became God, my interest was with internal debates within Christianity, understanding the theology of Jesus, who is he? As they develop their ideas, that he’s not just a human being, he’s God.

In my book, The Triumph of Christianity, I’m not interested in the internal Christian debates about theology. I’m interested in how Christianity was spreading throughout the Roman world. How did Christians convince non-Christians to accept their faith in Christ? It’s an extremely interesting question and a particularly important one because Christianity became the dominant institution of all of Western civilization and today is the religion, the largest religion, in the entire world.

Well, it started out with just a handful of Jesus followers who were lower class, illiterate, Jews from Galilee who spoke Aramaic. How within 400 years do they take over the entire Roman Empire? It’s a really interesting question. And so The Triumph of Christianity tries to explain how that happens. What did these people say and do to convince so many people that it eventually becomes the official religion of Rome and then the religion of the West for many centuries down to our own day?

Why was the rise of Christianity the most important event in Western history?

Bart Ehrman:

When Christianity took over the Roman Empire, it changed everything, socially, culturally, politically, not to mention religiously. In terms of religion, before this virtually everybody in the empire, except for the Jews, who were maybe 5 to 7% of the empire, everyone else was a polytheist, believing in many gods. Christians said, “No, there’s only one God. Jesus is His son. You have to believe in him for salvation.” These were all completely new ideas. And soon, virtually everybody agreed with these ideas, which were unlike anything that had been said for ever for thousands and thousands of years.

But it wasn’t just that the religion changed, culture changed, society changed, politics changed. Just in terms of culture, when we look back on our cultural heritage in the West, it doesn’t matter whether we’re thinking about literature or art or music or philosophy, all of them are incalculably different because of Christianity.

I mean, you don’t have Mozart or Bach without Christianity. In art, you don’t have Michael Angelo or Leonardo. In literature, you don’t have Milton or Shakespeare. So you just kind of go down the list. And I’m not saying that we wouldn’t have music, art, and literature, and philosophy. We certainly would have it, but they’d be incalculably different without Christianity.

And so this completely transformed Western civilization and in a way that nothing else ever has and probably nothing else ever will. And so the question of how it happened, for me, is one of the most important questions that we can ask if we’re interested in the history and culture of the West.

How does your book differ from Dr. Rodney Stark’s book of the same title?

Bart Ehrman:

I thought Rodney Stark’s book The Rise of Christianity was a very interesting book, mainly because as a sociologist, he knows how to crunch numbers. People have talked about how Christianity spread throughout the empire, but nobody could figure out how you could get from a small number in the first century, to an enormous number in the fourth century. If Christianity starts with say 20 people in the year 30, Jesus’ disciples and a handful of women right after his death, how do you get to 3 or 4 million people 300 years later? The assumption was always, well, it’s got to be a miracle, or you have to have massive conversion. Billy Graham type rallies, where thousands of people convert at once, and Stark showed, no, you don’t need that. He knows how population growth works. He’s a sociologist, and so he calculated a rate of growth.

That, by far, was the best part of his book, because he’s a sociologist who can crunch numbers. Where he and I disagree are on just about everything else. He has various theories about why Christianity took over, that by and large depend on a trust and reliance on our historical sources as simply telling it as it is. So if we have sources from Christians who say that we as Christians take care of the sick when they’re deadly ill, but those pagans, they don’t care about their family members. They just desert them. Well, Stark thinks well, that’s probably right then. So Christians tend to the sick, and the pagans don’t, and therefore Christians survive better because they nurse their… Most scholars who are actually scholars of early Christianity don’t approach their sources that way. He’s not a scholar of early Christianity. He’s a modern sociologist.

We have very good reason for thinking that in fact, pagans were concerned about the sick. They did love their families. We also know that in times of epidemic, even if it were true that the Christians took care of their family members more often than pagan, I don’t think it’s true, but if it was true, then what would happen is the people taking care of the sick would get sick themselves. They would get infected, and so the death rates would be higher among the Christians. In other words, it can’t explain why Christianity took off when paganism was that… Because of better healthcare. So there’s example, after example like that in his book where he comes up with really interesting arguments, and intriguing claims that I think don’t hold up against critical scrutiny.

My view actually is more the view of an ancient sociologist who taught at Yale, Ramsay MacMullen, who showed that the reason people were converting to Christianity wasn’t because of superior healthcare, or because of various other, it’s because people were convinced that the Christian God was more powerful than their gods, that religion in the ancient world was all about having access to power that we, as human beings need simply to survive. We can’t control the rain. We can’t control whether the crops grow. We can’t help it if somebody gets sick. We can’t do anything about it. There’s so much in our world we can’t control. The gods can. You worship the God for the divine power. Christians claimed their God was more powerful than the others, and they proved it by the claims of all these miracles they were doing, and that’s what converted people.

Did Christianity grow from the top down or bottom up?

Bart Ehrman:

When I started my research on the triumph of Christianity, I thought like most people appeared still to think, which is I thought that the reason Christianity took over the empire in the fourth century is because the Emperor Constantine converted. It’s maybe three or four million people at the beginning of the fourth century. It’s about 30 million at the end of the fourth century. And so, the difference is Constantine converted. He’s the emperor, and so he enforced Christianity on his subjects. That’s what I thought, until I actually did the work and realized that’s not it at all.

This is something… this is the one thing that Rodney Stark really convinced me of. If you actually chart the rate of growth, the rate of growth slows down in the fourth century. It’s because the way growth rates work in population. It’s like investments. If you’ve got an investment and you’ve got $100.00 in the bank and you make 5%, you’re not making very much money. But if you’ve got 100 million in the bank and you make 5%, you’re making money hand over fist. It’s an exponential curve, the more money you get.

That’s how it works with Christianity. It starts out small, but at some point, all of a sudden the numbers start growing and then boom, it takes off. That would’ve happened whether Constantine converted or not. The rate of Christian growth actually slowed down after Constantine. It didn’t increase, which means it had to slow down because otherwise, there’d be more Christians in the world than there were people in the world about 20 years after Constantine. So it had to slow down, which means it’s not because of Constantine.

Did a few extraordinary leaders make Christianity happen?

Bart Ehrman:

One of the most intriguing issues about the growth of Christianity from the 1st century to the end of the 4th century when it went from a tiny little sect of Jews to becoming the official religion of Rome, one of the most intriguing questions is who made it happen? And we tend to think in terms of big names. So when we do history today, we think who are the big figures. The American Revolution, who are the big figures? The Civil War, who are the big figures? That’s just how we’re trained to think because of the way our schooling works. And it simply doesn’t work for early Christianity.

One of the very odd things about the spread of Christianity in the first 300 years is that after the Apostle Paul we know the names of only two missionaries who were actually out there trying to convert people. And so it isn’t being done by the leaders of the church who are out there doing their evangelistic rallies. It’s actually happening at the very low level. You have heard about Christianity from a business associate of yours. And so after talking to this person for three months, you convert. You tell your wife, she converts. She talks to her next door neighbor, she converts. She converts her husband who converts her business associate. Her business associate converts his children. And it goes like that for hundreds of years not with big names. And so apart from Paul at the beginning and Constantine at the end, we really don’t have big names to associate with the spread of Christianity.

Was Christianity’s rise inevitable or an absolute good?

Bart Ehrman:

Almost always when we look back on history, we think that virtually everything big that happened was a fait accompli. It was simply going to happen. We think this about the Second World War, that the Allies naturally were going to win. We think this about the First World War. We think this about the Civil War, we think about the Rev… We just think this is how it was going to happen. People living at the time of course don’t know how it’s going to happen. This is true in our own day, where we really don’t know what’s going to happen in the future. But in 200 years, it’s going to seem like a fait accompli. My view about the triumph of Christianity is that it brought enormous good to the world, not only in terms of culture and for example, certain kinds of ethical views, I think very positive, it brought a big change in how people understood the meaning of life.

And especially with it is important I think, because Christianity brought the idea that life should be a life of service to others rather than life of dominating others, which was the Roman ideology. That the whole point of the existence was to dominate those weaker than you. Now, a lot of people still had that view today, but that wasn’t the Christian view. The original Christian view hasn’t been the Christian view throughout history. So Christianity’s done an enormous amount of good for our world. I hesitate though to say that Christianity was necessarily only a good thing, because Christianity has brought a lot of harm to the world, too. Christianity has been used to justify wars, torture, oppression, slavery. It’s still used to support racism and sexism and economic exploitation.

It’s used for terrible purposes. Now, somebody would say, “Well, that’s not really Christianity”, and okay, fair enough. But this is things that Christians do that if they weren’t Christian, who knows? Would culture have been better if Christianity hadn’t succeeded? How can we say? What could be better than Bach and Mozart and Leonardo and Michelangelo? What could be better? I don’t know. But there were fantastic artists in Ancient Greece and Rome, masses of fantastic literature that’s all been lost, because the Christians didn’t copy it. Artwork that was destroyed because the Christians didn’t like it. Music we don’t even know about because they didn’t preserve. And so we don’t know whether culturally would’ve been better or worse, but it would’ve been different. And so that’s why the tribe for Christianity is so significant, because everything we have, all of our cultural heritage really goes back to it.

Doug Monroe:

Me being a Christian, whenever I see Christians doing bad stuff, I blame human nature.

Bart Ehrman:

I do too. And I’ve got a lot of atheist friends who say it’s all because religion. And then, no, it’s not the problem. The problem isn’t the religion, it’s the religious.

Doug Monroe:

Exactly.

What is your standard of historical proof?

Bart Ehrman:

Doing history is very different from doing science. In the modern world, we’re accustomed to being able to prove things because we have scientific methods. The way science works is you develop an experiment and you repeat the experiment and you change variables one at a time very carefully and you evaluate the results. By doing this, you set up a way of predicting what’s going to happen next. You have predictive probabilities. That’s what science is about, making predictive probability.

History doesn’t work like that. History’s not predicting what’s going to happen, it’s trying to show of what did happen, and you can’t do it scientifically because you can’t repeat the experiment. It’s a completely different way of going about demonstrating the past than predicting scientifically what’s going to happen in the future.

Of course, science also looks at the past, so I’m not saying that science … Lots of science looks at the past, but history, that’s all history does.

How do historians show what probably happened? Well, it’s less like chemistry and it’s more like criminology. How do you show that a criminal committed an act? Well, maybe you have some eyewitnesses and you interview them and if they haven’t talked with each other ahead of time but they tell the same story, that’s good. That’s good evidence. If you only have one eyewitness, that’s good but maybe they’re making it up. What you want are lots of eyewitnesses and you want them to agree without having collaborated, so you want corroboration without collaboration. What if you don’t have eyewitnesses? Well, what if you have people who heard things from eyewitnesses? Okay, well, that’s what you got and so it’s not as good as eyewitnesses. You try and get as many people like that as you can.

When historians are looking at the past, they use that kind of logic. They look for sources of information that are close to the time, that are numerous, that are independent of one another, that corroborate one another without collaborating one another, and that say things that simply make sense. Sometimes you’ll have witnesses that say things that, “You know, that seems implausible to me,” like, “The reason that I was late to work today was because the moon fell on my house.” Yeah, probably not. You have plausibility measures as well.

Historians look at a range of evidence and they have to make an argument, which means that history is always a matter of weighing probabilities and that’s why different historians have different conclusions about just about everything in history. Every individual has to look at the arguments and see what’s the most plausible thing based on the kinds of evidence we have.

Definition of religion and miracles

Doug Monroe:

Do you have a walking around definition for religion and miracles?

Bart Ehrman:

I’ll answer it, but it won’t be an answer you like.

Doug Monroe:

Okay. Okay.

Bart Ehrman:

I’ve taught in departments of religious studies at major universities for about 35 years. One of the courses in most departments of religious studies in the United States will be a course on the introduction to religion. And many times the professor will spend the entire semester trying to understand what religion is, because there are multiple understandings and multiple definitions and none of them is problem free. And so as a good scholar of religion, I don’t define it. It’s like the judge who was ruling on a court case on pornography. He wouldn’t define it, but he knew it when he saw it. And religion is like that.

Doug Monroe:

Exactly.

Bart Ehrman:

In terms of miracle, miracle is a little bit different because miracle tends to mean something today that did not mean in the ancient world. Today, the term miracle almost always means an event that happens that is contrary to the laws of nature. And so if somebody walks on lukewarm water, that can’t happen, the law of nature is the weight of your body is greater than the weight of the water that displaces, or however you want to put it, and so it sinks. And if you hold up a ball and drop it, it’s going to fall because of gravity. It’s not going to rise to the ceiling unless there’s extraordinary circumstance. Then you have to figure out the extraordinary, but it’s always by laws of nature.

Ancient people did not understand miracle that way, which is why ancient people had no trouble believing in miracles. Everybody knew there were miracles. They happened all the time. Miracles were not violations of laws of nature. Of course, everybody understood that nature works in certain ways. Women get pregnant only after they’ve had sex and so virgins don’t give birth. That was understood. They got that part.

But on the other hand, they believed that there’s so much going on around us that we cannot explain by normal means, that the reason these things are going on is because the gods are doing it. Why does the sun come up? Well, there’s no natural explanation for that. God’s making it come up. Why does it rain? You don’t have a natural … There’s no way to explain it. Why is it that if you’re sick, you get well? Well, there’s no way to explain that. And so they invoke the gods. Miracles are not violations of natural law. They’re divine acts. And since the gods are acting all the time, it’s no greater miracle to walk on water than it is to have the sun come up. They’re both miracles. And so ancient people had no trouble believing that somebody could walk on water. They don’t have this concept of natural law that we have.

What is the state of the secularization thesis? 

Bart Ehrman:

I think the history of religion in the world today is very interesting, partly because it’s so regional. In most of Europe, the world is becoming secularized so that in England or France, you go into a large cathedral, fantastic, you can’t believe the beauty, and there are 12 people in there worshiping for Sunday morning, whereas in parts of America, you have mega churches.

And so I don’t think that necessarily the world is becoming secularized. I think parts of the world are becoming more religious and even in America, there are more agnostic and atheists than ever, but also, the mega churches are growing. What’s the interesting phenomenon in America, I think, is that over the past 50 years, the greatest growth have been in the conservative churches and the loss has been in mainly the liberal, mainline churches. And the very simple explanation for that, the most simple explanation for that is that the liberal churches believe in asking questions and the very conservative churches believe in giving answers and people prefer certitude to uncertainty. And so, that’s where people are flocking.

How important is balancing the federal budget?

Bart Ehrman:

Do I think it’s important to balance the budget? Well, the obvious problem with not balancing the budget is eventually somebody’s got to pay the piper. And so it’s a very complicated thing. Economists, of course, argue about this, and I’m not an economist. I do think the function of government is to help people, and that it certainly needs to be streamlined. There certainly is a lot of waste. And in my opinion, you shouldn’t hurt people in order to develop defense strategies, that you shouldn’t be building bombs when you can’t even feed your own people. Of course, you have to build bombs. We have to have a national defense, absolutely. But there’s a lot of waste there. And I think actually, our priorities are all messed up.

Can we apply today’s moral standards to the past?

Bart Ehrman:

I think it’s very difficult for people with very strong moral values, ethical values, to resonate with and to be non-judgmental about people in the past who had different values. We have seen in our own lifetime how values change, so that what is common sense now, is not what was common sense even 30 years ago. What do you do about people who live 200 years ago, or 2,000 years ago, who don’t share our moral values? How do you try to appreciate what they’re actually thinking, and what’s driving them without judging them for not being at 21st century American?

It’s almost impossible to do. And there have to be, there obviously have to be some kind of standards. I’m disgusted that the Romans used to take criminals and throw them to wild animals. It’s absolutely disgusting. But moral teachers back then, some of them didn’t mind that, they thought that was all right. And so, how do you even get your mind around it? But the reality is, in 40 or 50 years from today, everybody’s going to be judging things that we do today that we don’t think are problematic. That we simply assume are okay and we don’t know what those things are. But in 40 or 50 years people are going to be mocking us.

Are you a postmodernist?

Bart Ehrman:

Am I a postmodernist? Now, this is a very interesting question in part, because a lot of people don’t know what postmodernism is. So I’m going to give a confusing answer, which is this. In many ways I am a postmodernist. I don’t believe, for example, in strictly speaking objective truth. I think the truth is situational. I think that there are not some kind of objective standards out there to follow because I don’t think such things exist. Postmodernism is a complicated thing, so it would take three hours to unpack it all. But so I’m just taking one aspect of it.

On the other hand, my scholarship is really interested in trying to establish what happened in the past based on evidence. Some of my postmodernist friends are not only uninterested in that, they don’t think that is an appropriate line of inquiry. I think it’s a perfectly fine line of inquiry. I think that every line of inquiry is a perfectly fine line of inquiry. And so my historical practices are not particularly postmodern, even though my personal ideology is postmodern. Figure that one out.

Doug Monroe:

We’d need two more hours-

Bart Ehrman:

Exactly.

Doug Monroe:

… to the conversation.

Is it ok to spread good news?

Bart Ehrman:

I personally have no trouble with people evangelizing others. I think I agree with a friend of mine from graduate school, who used to say that, he said, “I believe in the right to be converted and to convert, and so you’re free to tell me your views and I’ll tell you mine.” Where I think it gets problematic is claiming that, “I know the truth and you don’t. There’s one truth, I have it.” How is that anything but arrogant?

It used to be my view and I didn’t try to be arrogant at the time. I simply thought, “Well, I’ve given a gift and I think other people should have this gift,” but deep down it meant, “I’m right, you’re wrong, and if you don’t agree with me, you’re going to go to hell.” “Really? You know this?” “Well yeah, it’s in the Bible.” “Really? Where is that in the Bible exactly?” “Well, you look at these.” In fact, no, this is just people wanting to be right the whole time. What’s really interesting in the history of religion, is that in ancient religion, no such thing existed. This idea that if I’m right, you’re wrong. This is an invention of the Christians and it’s not the best invention.

Doug Monroe:

Probably guilty as charged there.

Are you optimistic or pessimistic about America? 

Bart Ehrman:

As a rule, I tend to be an optimist rather than a pessimist. I think back in my fundamentalist days, I was firmly committed to the idea that people are inherently sinners and evil. And I don’t share that view anymore. I think that there is good in people and that ultimately good can triumph. In our current political situation, I have to admit that I’m pessimistic. I think that the moral values that I support are not supported by people in power now, and that the idea that it is okay to assert power over the weak has become the dominant political ideology. And that it’s evident not only in our foreign policies, but in our domestic policies. My view is that if people want to adopt those views, that we, as Americans should dominate everyone else and we as rich Americans should dominate the poor Americans.

We who are fortunate should dominate the unfortunate, if we do want to have that ideology, I think that we should admit it’s not Christian. A Christian ideology is one that says, “I am going to be concerned about the other, and I’m not going to dominate them.” I, myself am not a believing Christian because I don’t believe in God, I’m an agnostic, but I sometimes call myself a Christian agnostic because I believe in following the principles of Jesus, that you should love your neighbor as yourself and your neighbor isn’t simply the guy that lives next door, it’s not just the woman in your city, it’s not just the person who happens also to be an American. It’s anyone in need throughout the world. And if we don’t care for those who are in need in my view, we’re no longer Christian. And I’m simply hopeful that the country doesn’t go that way. I hope that the deeply rooted American values that we’ve always cherished don’t disappear, that we don’t become the Roman empire, but that we remain in that moral sense, a Christian nation.

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Reference

Website:

https://www.bartehrman.com/

Blog:

https://ehrmanblog.org/

Ehrman Project:

https://ehrmanproject.com/

Books:

https://www.bartehrman.com/books-published/

God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question—Why We Suffer:

https://www.bartehrman.com/gods-problem/

Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium:

https://www.bartehrman.com/jesus-apocalyptic-prophet-of-the-new-millennium/

Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible: https://www.bartehrman.com/jesus-interrupted/

YouTube Channel: https://www.youtube.com/c/bartdehrman

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What is the "bell curve" and "dumbbell curve" within politics? Frank Hill discusses in his interview with us.

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Is religion declining or rising worldwide? Prolific writer and sociologist, Dr. Rodney Stark, discusses this and more in his interview.

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What is postmodernism? Dr. Ladelle McWhorter discusses this and other philosophical concepts relevant to our cultural moment.

What are some key American ideals and why are they important to the West? Dr. Os Guinness discusses this and more in his interview.

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