Bart D. Ehrman Interview
| TBS Staff
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Bart D. Ehrman is the James A. Gray Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. One of the world’s leading New Testament scholars, Ehrman has written or edited some 27 books on the subject of Jesus, the New Testament, and Early Christianity, comprising not only scholarly studies, but also widely adopted college textbooks and popular bestsellers. Ehrman’s work combines rigorous textual criticism with close attention to the historical and cultural context of early Christian literature. He is perhaps best known for his contention that Jesus of Nazareth did not think of himself as divine, but rather was “deified” by the subsequent apostolic tradition, both oral and written.
In his personal journey, Professor Ehrman has traveled from born-again fundamentalist to liberal Christian to agnostic. Read more about Bart D. Ehrman’s work on his website.
Bart D. Ehrman Interview
Thank you very much for taking time out of your very busy schedule for this interview, which serves as a prologue to your upcoming Focused Civil Dialogue with Michael Licona here at TheBestSchools.org.
We will naturally be focusing in this interview on your views regarding the New Testament literature and the historical Jesus. However, before we turn to those matters, we would like to ask you about yourself.
When and where were you born? What did your parents do for a living? What was your religious upbringing like? Describe you K–12 education. What were you particularly good at in school?
Bart D. Ehrman
I was born and raised in Lawrence, Kansas (though, as a young child, I spent seven years in Fremont, Nebraska). My father was a salesman for a corrugated box company; my mother was a secretary. They both were firm believers in education, but obviously were not academics themselves. Still, my brother Radd and I both went on to do Ph.D.s. He is a professor of Classics at Kent State University, an expert in Latin. We teach many similar courses. Go figure.
Ours was a religious home. We went to church every Sunday, said grace before every evening meal, and talked about God at ease. I would say my mother was the steady rock when it came to religious upbringing. When we moved back to Lawrence, when I was in the fifth grade, we started attending Trinity Episcopal Church. We had tried several other churches, but my mom preferred that one since it seemed to be the only one that “talked about God”(!). I was an altar boy there all the way through high school, faithfully in church every week.
I was a good, but not a great, student all the way through high school. I was smart enough and reasonably disciplined, but not enormously rigorous in my studies. I preferred playing baseball and tennis. But in my junior year in high school, I started to excel on the high school debate team, and in my senior year, I more or less went crazy on it. We ended up winning the State debate championship, and the work habits I developed in that context stayed with me through college, turning me into an unusually driven learner — till this day.
We understand that you became a Christian during your high school years. Describe your conversion and the sort of faith you held back then. What prompted you to attend the ultra-conservative Moody Bible Institute in Chicago for college? Describe your time there, high points and low points? After leaving Moody with a three-year degree, you attended Wheaton College outside Chicago. What was that transition like? Did you find Wheaton’s broader evangelicalism congenial? Where were you in your faith when you graduated from Wheaton?
Bart D. Ehrman
Even though I had been a committed church person my entire life — I prayed every day, attended church faithfully every week, confessed my sins, said the Nicene creed, and so on — I became convinced my junior year in high school that this was not enough. I had started attending a Campus Life Youth for Christ meeting every week, and the leader of the group, a twenty-something named Bruce, convinced me that to be a “true” Christian I had to “ask Jesus into my heart” and “accept him as my Lord and Savior.” And I did so, when I was fifteen.
Bruce was a graduate of Moody Bible Institute. He — and I — did not think of it as “ultra-conservative.” We thought of it as “Christian.” Other schools (Wheaton, Trinity, Biola) were okay, but they weren’t seriously Christian. I was an all-or-nothing kind of person. I decided that if I wanted to be committed to Christ, I needed to give my life over to learning everything I could about my faith and about the Bible on which it was built. So, I decided not to go into college debate (e.g., at Kansas University, where most of my friends went), but to attend Moody Bible Institute.
I loved it there. I majored in Bible-Theology and absolutely threw myself into my classes. I memorized entire books of the Bible (on my own). I saw myself, and my friends, as “real” Christians.
After graduating from Moody, going to Wheaton was a bit of a letdown for me religiously: they weren’t as serious about their faith as we had been. But there at Wheaton — where I majored in English — I took Greek, read tons of English literature, studied history, and generally began to realize that the world was a lot bigger than I had ever imagined.
Upon graduating Wheaton, you went to Princeton Theological Seminary, a bastion of reformed and conservative evangelical faith at one time in its history, but a school that was much more mainstream and theologically liberal when you attended it. But why Princeton? Why not continue on with your graduate education at Wheaton? Or at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, north of Chicago? Either of these schools would have been much more in keeping with the Christian tradition that you were used to. What drew you to a place like Princeton, where you surely knew that your faith would be challenged?
Bart D. Ehrman
When I was at Moody, I was warned to be careful when I went to Wheaton, because people there were not serious about their faith. When I went to Wheaton, I was warned not to go to Princeton Theological Seminary — a Presbyterian school training ministers — because “there aren’t any Christians there.” Really. I did indeed know that my faith would be challenged there, because it was “liberal” (REALLY liberal for my tastes). But I had a clear and definite reason for going there.
I had decided, already at Moody, that I wanted to teach New Testament at the college level. Moreover, I decided that I wanted not to teach as a scholar in a Christian college, but as a Christian in a secular college, as a kind of witness to my students. As it turns out, I was pretty good at Greek at Wheaton, and decided that I wanted to do a Ph.D. focusing on the Greek manuscripts of the New Testament. My Greek professor, the beloved Jerry Hawthorne, told me that if I really wanted to pursue this line of scholarship, I should go to Princeton Theological Seminary, to study with the great Bruce Metzger.
I knew nothing about Princeton Seminary, other than that it was liberal and probably “not Christian”(!). But Metzger taught there. So, I went, armed with my evangelical commitments and beliefs, but eager to learn all I could about Greek manuscripts.
At Princeton you earned both the standard ministerial degree, the MDiv, as well as the PhD. What did you focus on during your master’s and doctoral studies? As with Charles Templeton and many other evangelicals who have attended Princeton Seminary, your faith took a hit there. What was the turning point there in your shift from conservative to liberal Christianity? Describe the liberal Christianity that you came to embrace. How did your conservative friends react to your changed faith?
I was a bit nervous going to Princeton Seminary because I knew that most of the faculty — and, I assumed (wrongly, as it turns out), the vast majority of the students — would be highly liberal, not believing in the literal truth of the Bible. But I was ready to “take them on”! I was required to take a range of courses in church history (loved those), theology, pastoral counselling, speaking, preaching, and so on. But my idea all along was to take as many Bible courses as I could. And I did.
It was a different universe from the one I had previously inhabited. The critical study of the Bible (which does not mean that you’re “being critical” the whole time; it means that you are engaged in high-level critical analysis) is very different from the “simply-believe-it” approach we had taken at Moody. I was highly resistant to it. I simply thought these people weren’t being Christian. But over time I came to see that in fact there was a lot to be said for having an open mind (as opposed to a closed one). If you read the Bible without assuming that there cannot be any mistakes in it, you realize, “Hey — there are mistakes in it!” I started realizing, reading the NT in Greek and the OT in Hebrew, that there are discrepancies, contradictions, historical and factual errors.
I was completely resistant to seeing these problems. But they were there, right in front of my eyes. I prayed about it incessantly. I tried to come up with solutions. I read what Bible-believing scholars said about such things. But I was completely committed to pursuing the truth, even if it was taking me someplace I did not want to go. I came to realize that the Bible was not the “inerrant, verbally inspired, Word of God.” I continued to think it was the Word of God; but I came to see that it was also a very human book, as well, with all the problems that human books otherwise have.
I continued to be a very committed and devout Christian. But the Bible was no longer an inerrant, infallible revelation for me.
During your time at Princeton Theological Seminary, you worked closely with Bruce Metzger (1914–2007). In his heyday, Metzger was regarded by many as the premier New Testament scholar this side of the Atlantic. Interestingly, Metzger was always broadly evangelical (there’s no question, for instance, that he held to the bodily resurrection of Jesus). Given his towering presence at Princeton and his deeply influential role in your own New Testament studies, why didn’t you follow his example and keep to a broadly evangelical faith?
As I indicated, I went to Princeton Seminary to study with Metzger, and I took every single course I could from him. With some fear and trepidation I made a point of meeting him face-to-face early on. I told him my interests. And I got to know him a bit. As time went on I got to know him better and better. In my second year (out of three), I asked him if he would direct a Master’s thesis I wanted to write (theses were optional; few students did them). He agreed. I ended up staying and doing my Ph.D. under his direction.
There is really no doubt that I was closer to Metzger (right) than any student he had ever taught. He not only directed both my MA thesis and Ph.D. dissertation, and chaired my exam committee. He also, later, asked me to serve as his assistant for the NRSV Bible Translation Committee (for which he was chair), which I did for a couple of years. I stayed in his home on occasion. And he became a father figure for me.
Metzger was reluctant to call himself an evangelical, though looking back, I suppose he was one, of sorts. He did believe in the literal Virgin Birth and the physical resurrection. But he also thought the creation story in Genesis was a myth; that whoever wrote 2 Peter, it was not the apostle Peter; and that there could be (some) discrepancies in the Bible. But he was a devout, conservative, committed Christian.
Why didn’t I stay that way? I really wanted to do so. I was desperate to do so. But the more I studied, the more I realized I just couldn’t do it. There were more discrepancies and contradictions in the Bible than Metzger was willing to admit (as every other biblical scholar that I had any connection with at Princeton knew full well).
One irony we cannot help but notice is that you are a co-author with Metzger on the fourth edition (Oxford, 2005) of his magisterial The Text of the New Testament (earlier editions 1964, 1968, and 1992 list him as solo author). Generations of students in biblical studies have cut their teeth on this book. One upshot of that book is that the texts that make up the canon of the New Testament are remarkably well preserved and that we can reconstruct pretty accurately most of what was originally there. In other words, even if higher criticism raises many disconcerting questions about the New Testament, lower or textual criticism does little promote skepticism of that book. And yet some of your books — notably Misquoting Jesus (HarperOne, 2005) — seem to take a very different tack, arguing that the very text of the New Testament is much in doubt.
Please explain this seeming inconsistency. Metzger was still alive when Misquoting Jesus appeared in print. Did he read it? What did he think of it?
I’ve always thought that it’s odd that people see this as an irony. I’ve never, ever seen it that way at all. I’ve seen it as two sides of the very same coin.
People who read The Text of the New Testament possibly are lulled into thinking that with all the evidence cited there, we can know with almost complete certainty what the New Testament originally said in every place. But, actually, that is not the thesis of the book at all. The book is about how we go about the incredibly difficult process of knowing what the authors of the NT wrote, given the circumstance that we don’t have their original writings, or copies of those originals, or copies of the copies of those originals, or copies of the copies of the copies of those originals. People reading that book for some reason overlook that this is the very real problem that textual scholars are confronted with. Metzger never overlooked it.
His book was indeed the classic in the field, and still is. Oxford Press decided that it needed a new edition of it, to be brought up to the present day in terms of its scholarship. They asked Metzger if he would like some help in revising it, and yes, he would like me to do it with him. And so I did. It was a terrific experience. We worked closely on it. I added several new sections. We revised portions together. It was a completely joint project.
About the same time, I was writing my Misquoting Jesus. That book was less about how specialists reconstruct the NT text (the theme of the Metzger book) than it was about the enormity of the textual problem (as presupposed in the Metzger book). Yes, we have abundant evidence for the text of the NT. But very little of that evidence is early, and much of it is highly problematic. In Misquoting Jesus, I explain the problems and spend a good chunk of time talking about the history of scholarship trying to solve them.
Metzger did indeed read the book, and he told me that he liked it very much. He simply didn’t have the knee-jerk reaction to it that other readers have had, since he realized that I wasn’t making anything up in it, but simply explaining to a lay audience what the issues and problems are with the text of the NT.
You no longer consider yourself a liberal Christian, but rather an agnostic or atheist. Please describe this further shift in your views. We understand that the problem of evil was responsible for this shift, and in particular your dissatisfaction with Christianity’s ability to address and redress this problem.
Christianity offers various theodicies, perhaps the most widely held one being due to Augustine, who claimed that God allows evil because of the greater good that he brings out of it. Why doesn’t this solution satisfy you? Are there any other Christian theodicies that you think do better, even if they are still unsatisfying to you? How do you understand evil now that you’ve embraced agnosticism/atheism? Are you satisfied with your present understanding of the problem of evil?
This is obviously a very difficult issue to address in 300 words or less!!! I have devoted a book to the question, God’s Problem (HarperOne, 2008), and even that is very much only barely scratching the surface.
So, let me give just a brief background. When I was teaching at Rutgers in the mid-1980s, I was asked to teach a class on the problem of suffering as presented in different parts of the Bible. That was a revolutionary experience for me, as I realized in teaching the class just how many explanations for human suffering can be found in the Bible. Some of them are at odds with one another. I explain all that in my book.
When I taught the class, I was a deeply committed Christian. And I continued to be for years afterward. But I began to wrestle deeply with the problem of suffering. There are some kinds of suffering that make sense (to me): humans do wicked things to one another, involving such awful experiences as incest, rape, torture, mutilation, killing, war, and so on. Those things one can explain on the basis of free will. If we weren’t free to do such things, we would not be fully human (I think that explanation is problematic, as I detail in my book, but it would take too long to explain why here).
Other things are less explicable: famine, drought, hurricanes, tsunamis, birth defects, and so on — all leading to horrible, unimaginable suffering. How do we explain these things? I used to have explanations (based on what I had read in biblical scholars, theologians, philosophers, and so on). But I got to a point where I just didn’t think it made sense any more. I couldn’t believe that there was a God who cared about his people and was active in the world and intervened on behalf of those in need and answered prayer, when there is an innocent child who starves to death every five seconds.
I certainly don’t buy the Augustine view. It’s all well and good to say that suffering makes us better, makes us more noble, brings a greater good. But what about that poor three-year-old child who starved to death since you started reading this paragraph? She had to experience such gut-wrenching agony to make my life, or anyone’s life, the world’s life better? And that’s true of all the children who have starved to death — millions of them, just over the past few years (not to mention all the years since Augustine was writing). I came to a point where I just didn’t believe it.
The Bible, and the New Testament in particular, have been at the heart of so much of your thought and work over the years. Briefly, if you had to give a timeline for your views on Scripture, what would that timeline look like? Where are the main discontinuities or shifts in your view, and what were the catalysts? When was the last time that you did a complete read-through of the Bible?
Bart D. Ehrman
When I was a child, I respected the Bible, but knew nothing about it. A good part of the reason for that is probably that I was raised Episcopalian, rather than Baptist! When I was in high school and had my born-again experience, I realized how completely ignorant of the Bible I was, and really wanted to learn about it — not just to read it, but to understand it, know it, love it, memorize it, recite it.
So, late in high school, I started reading it assiduously and attending Bible studies. I then went to Moody, where I went hard-core on learning the Bible and memorizing it, devoted to each and every part of it. At Wheaton, I learned how to read the NT in Greek and did so as much as I could. When I went to Princeton, I learned how to read the OT in Hebrew, and considered doing a Ph.D. in Hebrew Bible. At that point — in my early 20s — I came to realize that the Bible was not the inerrant revelation from God (it had mistakes), as mentioned earlier. But I was still completely enthralled and committed to knowing more about it.
And I still am. Now, I see the Bible as a very human book. But it is by far the most important, earth-shattering, life-changing book (well, 66 books) the world has ever seen.
Main game-changers in my relationship to the Bible: becoming born again; learning biblical languages; recognizing the true nature of the Bible (as a human book).
I read the Bible all the time. Rarely, anymore, do I need to read an entire book at one sitting, though I do on occasion. But I read portions massively and repeatedly. The last complete read-through was probably a couple of years ago, when I wrote my college-level textbook, The Bible: A Historical and Literary Introduction (Oford UP, 2013).
Let us turn now to the main question before us, which will also be the focus of your upcoming Focused Civil Dialogue with Michael Licona — namely, the historical reliability of the New Testament accounts of the life of Jesus, and especially of the resurrection.
Your position, as we understand it, is that some of the events portrayed in the New Testament writings can be established to have occurred to a high degree of certainty on the basis of the evidence provided by those and other contemporaneous literary remains. For example, you have written an entire book — Did Jesus Exist? (HarperOne, 2013) — to show that Jesus of Nazareth was a real person who lived in Palestine during the first decades of the Common Era, was condemned to death by the Roman prefect Pontius Pilate, and was crucified, all more or less in accordance with Scripture.
Nevertheless, you also maintain that other events recounted in Scripture, notably the resurrection, cannot be established as historically accurate on the basis of these same documents. Your reasons are complicated, and have been explained by you in numerous volumes, so we can hardly expect to do justice to them here. But let us try to cover some of the most important points.
First, there seems to us to be a tension in your writings between the claim that the resurrection is poorly supported by the available documentary evidence and the claim that no amount of evidence could possibly provide adequate evidence for the truth of such a miraculous or supernatural event. This suggests to us that we need to distinguish carefully between the philosophical underpinnings of your historical inquiries and those inquiries themselves.
Let us begin, then, by asking whether you believe there is such a thing as objective historical truth at all. That is, setting aside the case of Jesus altogether, would you agree with Leopold von Ranke (left) that in general the proper goal of the historian is to determine “how it really happened”? Or do you incline more to a “postmodern” skepticism with respect to the whole notion of historical truth? Or are you somewhere in between these two extreme positions?
Bart D. Ehrman
I’m not completely sure what you mean by the term “objective historical truth.” As you probably know, it’s a loaded term that is problematic for lots of reasons — but I probably don’t need to go into them here (for which we can all be thankful!). So, let me try to explain my views as well as I can without saying anything particularly complicated.
If you’re asking me whether I think the past happened, then the answer is absolutely yes. If you’re asking whether I think we can be virtually certain that some things in the past happened, then again, absolutely yes.
The problem is that there are some things that are far more certain than other things. It is certain, in my mind, that my basketball team, the UNC Tar Heels, lost to Notre Dame last night. I wish it weren’t so, but it happened. I saw it. I know. Now, in theory some clever television producer could have altered the delay-tape of the game somehow so that it only seemed like they lost, when they actually won. But I don’t think so. I’m absolutely sure they lost.
If you ask me about a game that was played 150 years ago, I would not be as certain. If you ask me about an event that happened 1,300 years ago, I would be even less certain. If you asked me about something that took place 13,000 years ago, I would be even less certain. If you asked me about a basketball game that got played last week on Mars, well, at that point I’d probably say, no, I don’t think so.
So, yes, I do think the past happened. I think in some cases, we can know what happened. In most cases, we cannot know what happened. And some things are more probable as having happened than others.
Assuming, then, that there is such a thing as historical truth — events really did occur in the past in such and such a way, whether or not we can ever know about them — let us begin to explore the particular case before us.
Everyone agrees, we think, that the study of the past presents peculiar difficulties. For instance, our knowledge of past events depends entirely on present causal consequences of those events — the events themselves are lost to us. Also, historians are unable to run controlled experiments. And so forth.
However, it seems to us that the skeptical approach to the question of the resurrection of Jesus adopted by you and other secular, atheist, or agnostic authors is not primarily connected to these sorts of problems at all. That is, we suspect that historical issues are not what is really driving most skeptics’ skepticism — that if they read a report of occurrences similar to those described in the canonical Gospels occurring somewhere in the world today, they would be equally skeptical, no doubt chalking them up to either deception or credulity. Moreover, we suspect skeptics would not believe even their own eyes, if they experienced an appearance like that of the risen Christ recounted in Scripture. Rather, they would suspect some trick, or perhaps that they were hallucinating.
In short, isn’t a prior philosophical determination that there is no God and miracles do not occur what is really driving your skepticism (and that of other authors taking a position similar to yours), not any particularities regarding the admittedly difficult historical record?
Bart D. Ehrman
That’s a common misreading of my view, and I certainly understand why people think that this is what I think. But it’s not what I think. I’ve repeatedly explained in my writings exactly why it’s not what I think, but for some reason people keep telling me it’s what I think. Life can be like that sometimes.
The view I have of Jesus’s resurrection, or of his other miracles, or of anyone else’s miracles (say, Apollonius of Tyana’s or Elijah’s) is the view I had when I was a Christian, when I believed in God, and when I believed that miracles could and did happen. I have the same view now as I had then. So, it’s not an atheist view.
The view is that even if miracles did happen in the past — let’s simply grant that they happened — there is no way to establish that they happened using the historical disciplines (i.e., to show they are, using your term from earlier, “objective historical truth”). Again, that’s not a result of atheist, anti-supernaturalist presuppositions. It is the result of historical method. Historians simply have no access to supernatural activities involving the actions of God. Only theologians (among the scholars) have access to God. Theologians can certainly affirm that God has done miracles, but they are affirming this on theological grounds, not historical grounds.
It would take about five pages to explain that — but I’ve explained it a lot in my books, most recently in How Jesus Became God (HarperOne, 2014). I’d suggest someone interested in the reasoning simply read the book. Here, I’ll just make the fundamental point, which will surely confuse people (and so, maybe, encourage them to read the book!): “History is Not the Past.”
The past is everything that happened before now. History is what we can establish as having happened before now. Miracles may be in the past. But they cannot be established as having happened. Big difference.
To see why, see my fuller explanations!
Let’s shift gears now. Let us set aside the whole problem of the existence or non-existence of God and the possibility or impossibility of miracles, and focus instead on the historical evidence as you see it.
As we understand it, one of your main claims is that the best historical evidence shows an “exaltation” view of Jesus, as opposed to an “incarnation” view. Could you briefly explain what these terms mean and the basis for your support for the former view, for those of our readers who may not be experts on the New Testament?
Bart D. Ehrman
I’m afraid that’s not actually my view. But first let me explain the terms. An “exaltation” view of Christ is the view that at some point of his existence, Christ was “exalted” by God to a high level of divinity. This was the view of the earliest Christians, as seen for example in Paul’s speech on Acts 13:33 (where God made Jesus the Son of God by raising him from the dead; you find a similar view in Romans 1:3–4 and in more exalted terms in Philippians 2:6–11).
Some people who held this view in early Christianity thought that Christ started as a human, and God made him divine; others thought that Christ started as a divine being and God exalted him to a higher level of divinity. In both cases, God exalted Jesus, either at his resurrection, or at his baptism, or at some other point of his existence.
An “incarnation” view of Christ is the view that Christ started out as a highly exalted divine being who became human temporarily. The word incarnation literally means something like “having come in the flesh.” In this view Christ started in heaven with the Father and became a human being. You find that view, for example, in John 1:1–14.
My view is decidedly not that one view is right and the other wrong. My view is that the earliest followers of Jesus had an exaltation Christology. They knew Jesus as a man, but they came to believe he had been raised from the dead. Once they thought that, they assumed he had been taken up to heaven and made divine. As time went on, other Christians began to think that Jesus was not originally a human, but that he was a divine being for his entire life, and then an incarnation theology developed.
I’m not saying either view is right or wrong (or is “my” view). I’m saying that Christianity started out with an exaltation Christology and then developed an incarnation Christology.
Most Christians hold the latter, today.
One of the points you emphasize is that the accounts of the Passion provided by the authors of the three synoptic Gospels (Mark, Matthew, and Luke) differ from one another on numerous points of detail. From this you infer their unreliability.
But the three Gospels all agree on the basics of the story: the trial, the condemnation, the scourging, the crucifixion. If their disagreement is evidence of their unreliability in matters of detail, why isn’t their agreement evidence of reliability in fundamentals?
Bart D. Ehrman
It is important to realize that all four Gospels ultimately owe their traditions about Jesus to the oral traditions that were in circulation about him soon after his death, among his followers who had come to believe that he had been raised from the dead. These disciples were intent on converting others to believe, as well. But to convert someone to believe in Jesus, they had to tell them stories about Jesus — including, especially, the stories about his death.
These stories were then in circulation for several decades before anyone wrote them down. The essentials of the story were widely shared among the many different story tellers: Jesus had gone to Jerusalem during Passover, ignited opposition among the Jewish leaders there, who had him arrested and turned over to Pontius Pilate, who ordered him executed for claiming to be the King of the Jews. And so these stories form the heart and soul of the Passion narratives of the Gospels, and naturally, in their broad contours are similar.
The question is not whether there could be some historical reliability among these stories. Most scholars would agree that there are historical methods we can apply to the stories to see if the events they narrate actually happened or not. (Was Jesus killed? Yes. By the Romans? Yes. By crucifixion? Yes. And so on).
The question is whether there are also unreliable stories found in these later narratives. And there again, apart from fundamentalists and very conservative evangelicals, scholars agree that the answer is yes.
Another point you emphasize in your books is that the historical Jesus cannot have thought of himself as equal to God, as is claimed by the late Gospel of John, because Judaism itself was not so strictly monotheistic as is usually supposed, and there was basically a continuum between men, heroes, kings, messiahs, demons, angels, and God.
This idea comes as a big surprise to many of us, who were raised on the idea of strict monotheism as the single most distinctive feature of Judaism. Could you explain briefly the reasons why the received view is in error?
Bart D. Ehrman
I’m not sure I understand the first paragraph: it wouldn’t make sense to say that Jesus could not call himself equal with God if Judaism had a continuum of divinities. Why would that stop him from calling himself equal with God? I’ve never argued that and don’t see how anyone could argue it. (I absolutely don’t think the historical Jesus equated himself with God, as he is portrayed as doing in the Gospel of John, but for completely different reasons.)
So, I’ll address the second paragraph. Yes, before I did my research on How Jesus Became God, I too thought that Jews should be thought of as strict monotheists. But I came to realize that it would depend on what one means by that. Judaism has lots of supernatural beings who are not equal with God: angels, archangels, principalities, powers, and so on. Non-Jews in the ancient world would have considered these divine beings — superhuman spiritual entities that dwell in heaven. It turns out, most Jews thought of them in that way, as well.
It’s not that any of these was equal with God. They were all created beings. But they were created divine beings. Ancient Jews even thought that humans could be made into divine beings. The Jewish philosopher, Philo, for example, thought that at the end of his life Moses was made into a god. Not God Almighty, of course, but a god nonetheless.
Even in the Hebrew Bible, humans could be called God. Think of Psalm 45, where God speaks to the king of Israel and says, “Your throne, O God, is forever and ever”; or Psalm 110 where we learn, again about the king, that “The LORD said to my Lord, sit at my right hand…”. It seems weird to us because in our world virtually everyone is a monotheist, believing that there is only one God. But ancient people — including Jews — thought there were other divine beings, including some who were human!
One of the criticisms that have been directed against your work is that the “angelomorphic” view of Jesus you ascribe to the authors of the canonical Gospels (and which is part of the general “exaltation” framework) is guilty of committing an equivocation by ignoring different senses of the term “divine.”
That is, the New Testament authors predicate the Greek adjective theios of angels and of God in different senses. The latter is “divine” in the primary sense of being the unique creator of the universe and proper object of worship. The former are “divine” only in the secondary sense that they are associated with God.
Jesus — so this critique goes — is clearly meant to be theios in the former sense (because, e.g., of the shared epithet kurios [Lord]), not the latter one.
What say you in response to this criticism?
I’m not sure I understand the critique. I don’t think that the Gospels of the New Testament portray Jesus as an angel. And in my view the Gospels of the New Testament do portray Jesus as an object worthy of worship.
But let me just make a couple of clarifying remarks.
I do not think that Matthew, Mark, and Luke understood Jesus to have been the Creator of the world. They never say that, or hint at that. He is worthy of worship, though, since God exalted him to his heavenly throne at the resurrection.
The Gospel of John, on the other hand, does believe that “the Word” of God created the world. And the Word became incarnate as the man Jesus Christ. But it’s not quite right to say even for John that Jesus was the Creator of the world. Jesus did not exist, for John, until the Word became flesh. When it did so, it became the man Jesus. So, it was the Word that was the creator. And then the Word became flesh, the man Jesus. Only in that sense is Jesus associated with creation, as the incarnation of the Word that created all things.
Another issue to which you attach much significance is the existence of two very different traditions regarding the resurrection: the empty tomb versus the appearances/visions. But to the layman, these two traditions (if that is what they are) appear to be perfectly compatible. Could you please explain to us why you believe the existence of these two traditions undermines the traditional orthodox view that both things really happened?
No, that’s not my view. I never argue that the empty tomb and the appearances somehow are incompatible and cancel each other out, or that they are in any way incompatible. My view instead is simply that they are two different traditions and it’s important to recognize their differences. It has long been noted that the apostle Paul speaks of Jesus’s appearances, but never mentions the story about the women going to the tomb and finding it empty. Strikingly, the Gospel of Mark tells the story about the women going to the tomb to find it empty, but never mentions any stories about Jesus’s post-resurrection appearances.
In the Gospels (and Acts), the empty tomb functions to show that Jesus really was physically raised from the dead. But, strikingly, it never leads anyone to believe. (And why would it? If a body was buried in a tomb and later it was not there, would someone immediately say: “He has been raised from the dead?” Of course not. They would say: “Grave robbers!” Or, “Hey, I’m at the wrong tomb!”)
On the other hand, the resurrection appearances function to show that Jesus really did come back to life. And it is these appearances, and only these appearances, that cause people to believe.
In my book How Jesus Became God, I show why it is difficult to establish historically that there really was an empty tomb; but I stress repeatedly that some of the disciples believed they saw Jesus later, and on that basis they came to believe he had been raised and exalted to heaven.
Returning to an issue that is perhaps closer to philosophy — that of historical methodology — you are famous for having articulated a number of criteria by which a purported historical event must be tested in order for us to be justified in assigning to it a high probability of truth. Could you please summarize these important criteria for us?
Bart D. Ehrman
Ha! That’s pretty funny if someone thinks I’m famous for articulating these historical criteria! These are criteria that all of us learned in graduate school back in the 1970s. Everyone studying NT in every major Ph.D. program in America and Europe learned these criteria. I had nothing to do with coming up with them!
There really shouldn’t be much controversy about the criteria: they are simply rigorous formulations of what almost everyone would agree is common sense. Suppose you want to know if something happened in the past (say, you want to know what happened in a presidential debate, or what happened in a car accident).
- Rule One:
- If you have lots of people who tell you basically the same story, and they have not collaborated with one another or with other shared sources of information, then that story is better established than a story told by only one person. (Since none of those telling it could have made it up, since then you couldn’t explain how the others would know it: no collaboration!)
- Rule Two:
- If a witness to the event says something about it that is contrary to what she or he would want to say, then that statement in particular is very likely right. Suppose a mother is on the witness stand and has to admit something that incriminates her much beloved son; she’s probably telling the truth at that point — in contrast to saying something that exonerates him. It’s NOT that a statement exonerating him is necessarily wrong. It’s that a statement incriminating him is almost certainly right. It’s important to recognize the difference.
- Rule Three:
- If a detail simply makes no sense given what you know about the context of the event, then it’s probably not plausible. For example, if someone tells you that Ted Cruz and Donald Trump in last night’s debate started yelling at each other in Swahili, you simply wouldn’t believe it. It isn’t credible, based on what you know about their lives (neither of them, for example, having learned Swahili).
These same rules are what scholars (since I was in first grade) have regularly used to establish what Jesus really said and did. Are the traditions about his life found in numerous independent sources? Are any of the traditions dissimilar to the interests of those telling the story? Do any of them contradict what we otherwise know about his world and context?
One of your criteria — dissimilarity — has come under particularly harsh criticism. That is because it seems paradoxical if applied to other ancient writings, say, the Platonic corpus.
In that case, only descriptions of actions by Socrates that were dissimilar to the common notion of a philosopher’s behavior (say, getting roaring drunk and making a pass at Alcibiades) would be considered reliable. All the other actions ascribed to Socrates which comported well with the common notion (teaching the Pythagorean theorem to a slave boy) would be considered suspect. But that seems absurd.
How do you respond to such critics?
Bart D. Ehrman
Again, I’m a bit confused. I didn’t make up these criteria! They’ve been around for over a half a century, and have been used my multitudes of scholars. And they simply make sense. They are used for all historical work, not just the Gospels.
Yes, indeed, they are used with the Platonic corpus — in almost exactly the same way they are used with the Gospels. If you want to know what Socrates really said and did, you see if you have independent accounts (my Rule One: that, is, Is Plato supported by Xenophon?); you see if any comments by Socrates runs counter to what the author would have wanted him to say (Rule Two: e.g., in Aristophanes!); and you see if anything in the record is not contextually credible (Rule Three).
The criterion of dissimilarity is my Rule Two, and I’m afraid you’ve misstated it. The rule is NOT that something that “comported well with the common notion” is probably unhistorical. That’s not the rule at all. The rule is that if something does comport with the common notion, you can’t use its dissimilarity to show that it probably happened. That doesn’t meant that it didn’t happen. It means that this rule cannot be used to show that it did happen. So, you need to appeal to another rule (e.g., Rule One).
Dissimilarity is principally used in order to establish what almost certainly happened in the past. It is not used to show what could not have happened in the past. It gives you a core amount of material that is historical. You use other criteria to give you yet more material.
Another point that critics raise with your methodology is its apparent inconsistency. For example, by your own criterion of dissimilarity it seems you ought to count the highly “paradoxical” claim some of the New Testament authors make that Jesus had a divine as well as human nature as a point in their favor.
Instead, you seem to set aside the dissimilarity criterion when it suits you, and say that because all the other itinerant apocalyptic Jewish preachers we know about from the ancient sources were considered human, the texts claiming Jesus to be divine must be mistaken.
What say you to the inconsistency charge?
Bart D. Ehrman
I guess I would say that I don’t understand the charge at all. I’ve never said anything like that. I really don’t mind if people disagree with what I say. But if they disagree with something that I’ve never said, how are they actually disagreeing with me?
With respect to the first paragraph of the question: a paradoxical view of Christ as both divine and human would decidedly NOT pass the criterion of dissimilarity. That was the view that virtually every Christian author we know of actually had. If so, how would an affirmation of that view be dissimilar to what they thought? It would be exactly what they did think.
With respect to the second paragraph, I never claim that Jesus must have been human because all other itinerant apocalyptic Jewish preachers were. Why would I argue that? It’s a silly argument.
These attacks on my views are simply straw men. I’m surprised anyone really makes them. Do they really? Well, I suppose they do!
Your basic line on the historical Jesus — that he was a human being who was later “deified” by the apostolic tradition — has been inexistence for some 200 years, since the rise of German biblical criticism in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries (e.g., David Strauss’s Life of Jesus, Critically Examined ).
Would you say that your position is very close to theirs — basically filling in details? Or would you say that we now know so much more about the textual and cultural context surrounding the New Testament writings that we have a significantly different view of the life of Jesus from theirs?
If the latter, what would you say is your own greatest contribution to this new knowledge?
Bart D. Ehrman
Strauss’s book on the life of Jesus was an absolute classic, arguably the most important book on the topic from over the past 200 years (with Albert Schweitzer’s (right) book, The Quest of the Historical Jesus (1906) also vying for the spot). But its significance was not rooted in some kind of view of later Christology, but because it argued that the stories in the Gospels are not historical traditions, but later mythologized understandings of Jesus. The specific view that Strauss lays out is held by precisely no one, to my knowledge, today. But the basic idea is held by just about every NT scholar except for fundamentalists and very conservative evangelicals: the Gospels contain stories that did not happen as they are narrated, but their ultimate point is not to give historical lessons about what transpired one year in first century Palestine; it is instead to deliver theological messages about who Jesus really is.
So, that in very broad terms is also my view. The Gospels contain stories that are not historically accurate, but are intended to convey the author’s religious understanding of Jesus. That is not only my view — it is view of virtually every biblical scholar who teaches at any major university in the country. (Take your pick: Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Duke, Emory, Vanderbilt, Texas, California, UCLA, Oregon, or, keep going — really, take your pick!)
But we know so much more than Strauss did about the Jewish world, the Roman empire, the history of Palestine, the manuscript tradition of the NT, the historical Jesus, and and and.
As to my own contributions: I write three kinds of books. Some books are hard-hitting scholarship for scholars — that is, for the six people in the world who really care. Others are textbooks for university/college students. And others are for adult general audiences. My contributions to scholarship are pretty much only in my scholarly books, starting with Didymus the Blind and the Text of the Gospels (Scholars' Press, 1987) (really!); to The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture (Oxford UP, 1993); to Forgery and Counterforgery: The Use of Literary Deceit in Early Christian Polemics (Oxford UP, 2012). My textbooks (on the New Testament; on the whole Bible; on early Christianity) do not try to develop and establish scholarship. They are meant to summarize scholarship for undergraduates, in an accessible and interesting way. And my books for general audiences try to do something different, in a very different format, for mature adults.
My major scholarly contributions are in fields of textual criticism (dealing with the ancient manuscripts of the NT and how they were altered); the use of literary forgery in antiquity; early Christian apocrypha and pseudepigrapha; and the apostolic fathers.
To wind up this discussion, we would like you to tell us — in bulleted list format, if you like — what you consider to be the five strongest arguments in favor of your view that the New Testament presents a historically unreliable account of Jesus life, work, and teachings, and in particular that it provides no compelling evidence to think that Jesus rose bodily from the dead. Additionally, please lay out for us what you regard as the five weakest arguments that are commonly advanced by New Testament scholars like Michael Licona when they claim that the New Testament is broadly reliable and that its account of Jesus’s resurrection may be trusted.
Ah, this is tricky. OK, in bullet point fashion, my main arguments:
Historians, by the nature of their craft, have no access to any activities of God. That is the purview of theologians. Historians do not have tools to access the supernatural. That’s no one’s fault. It’s just the way it is. Historians also have no way of establishing if a poem is beautiful, if I love my wife, if there is dark matter, if the Pythagorean theorem is true, or anything else outside the realm of “history” (please remember, “the past” is not synonymous with history). To believe in the resurrection of Jesus is a religious commitment. It is a belief. It is no more susceptible of historical “proof” than is the claim that there is only one God (or that there are two; or 24).
- The Bible does contain historically reliable information, but it also contains other information that is not reliable. There never really was a battle of Jericho where the “Walls came a tumblin’ down” (we know this because of archaeology). So, too, there are things related in the Gospels that did not happen as narrated. Mike Licona agrees with this.
- The Gospels are riddled with historical problems — no matter how valuable they are as cherished documents of faith. There are flat-out contradictions and discrepancies, for example. If you have two accounts of the same event, they both cannot be historically accurate. And you have accounts like that all over the place in the Gospels, as anyone can see simply by reading stories in multiple Gospels and comparing the different accounts to one another in detail.
- The resurrection narratives themselves are riddled with these problems. Just compare them carefully with one another, line by line! Who went to the tomb on the third day? One woman? Several women? How many? Who were they? It depends on which Gospel you read. What/Whom did they see there? Depends which Gospel you read. Was the stone rolled away before they arrived or did it roll away once they got there? Depends on the Gospel. What were they told to do? Did they do it? Did they tell the disciples? Or not? Did the disciples see Jesus afterward? Where did they see him? And so on and on. If you don’t believe me, just read Matthew’s account and then Luke’s (being sure to read not only Luke 24, but also Acts 1–2). Ask yourself: “Did the disciples immediately leave Jerusalem to go back up to Galilee to see Jesus? Or did they stay in Jerusalem and never leave?” If you had four witnesses at a trial who disagreed on virtually every detail — when they had all gotten the basic information from someone else — what would you think of their testimony?
- The reason there are so many differences (and similarities!) in the Gospels is that the stories they narrate were being told by word of mouth, year after year, decade after decade, after the disciples had come to believe that Jesus had been raised. What happens to stories that get circulated this way? They change. People forget things. They misremember things. They invent things. Happens all the time. It happened to the stories of Jesus.
This is even trickier. I’m not sure what Mike is going to argue. Let me point out some arguments that I have heard that struck me as weak, with the proviso that he may not use them!
Response: It’s true that we have far more manuscripts of the NT than for any other book. But that has ZERO bearing on whether you can trust it. The manuscripts are valuable for knowing what the authors wrote, not for knowing whether what they wrote is true. Think of it this way: We have FAR more copies of Mein Kampf than we have manuscripts of the New Testament. Does that mean that we can trust Mein Kampf? That what Hitler said is therefore true? Of course not. It simply means that we can be pretty sure that we know what he wrote.
- Response: Yes indeed, these three Gospels agree a lot. But there’s a really good reason for that, which scholars have known since the mid-nineteenth century, a reason I learned way back when I was a fundamentalist at Moody Bible Institute. They all had the same sources of information. More specifically, Matthew and Luke got most of their stories from Mark. They copied him and added stories to his account. So, of course they agree extensively with Mark. And with one another. How would they not? He gave them most of their narratives. But that has no bearing on whether the stories they tell are historically accurate or not.
- Response: Actually, that’s not true. It is true to say that many parts of the New Testament show knowledge of first-century geography, religion, and culture. But how could it not show this knowledge? It was written by first-century authors! Presumably, they knew about the geography, religion, and culture of the first century! But that doesn’t mean that what they say is historically accurate or not. Suppose I were to write a novel, or even a biography, about someone who lived in my home town of Lawrence, Kansas. Presumably, I would know about the main street (Massachusetts), the location of the university (on the hill), the basic size of the place (middlin’), the industries in the area (e.g., the Lawrence Paper Company), and so on. Would that make the stories I told about my protagonist true? Of course not. I could simply be making stuff up. If in 2,000 years an archaeologist digs up Lawrence in order to see if my novel is “true,” well, the location of the university on a hill would have no bearing on whether my stories about a professor who taught at the university are true or not.
Response: You have to look VERY carefully and be VERY attentive when people start claiming that some things are evidence. Often, they pile up “evidence” to look like they have lots of proof. But look at each thing they claim. Is it any evidence at ALL??? The fact that Jesus was crucified is not and never can be evidence that he was raised. It can’t even be a contributing factor to the question of whether he was raised. Many thousands of people were crucified in Jesus’s day. Is the fact that they were crucified evidence that they were raised from the dead? Of course not. Dying is not evidence that you were brought back to life. Everyone dies. What does that have to do with the question of whether one of those who died was raised? It has no bearing on the question (other than to say that if someone did not die, they could not be resurrected from the dead! But their death is not evidence that they were resurrected).
- Response: Actually, all scholars don’t agree with this. I certainly don’t. My reasons are complicated, but again they are not ones that I myself made up. Scholars before me also had doubts. Here is one thing to think about: We know what Romans did to crucified victims. The ancient sources tell us. They left them on the cross for several days to decompose and be subject to the ravages of time, elements, and scavengers. This was all part of the humiliation and punishment. Your body was publicly left to rot. This was to show what happens to anyone who opposes the power of Rome. Our evidence of this is unambiguous. Did Romans make an exception of Jesus? Why would they do that? Would it be because they knew that he was the Son of God? They didn’t believe that. Would it be because someone (Joseph of Arimathea) asked nicely?
They didn’t give a stuff. I know this cuts across what so many people think and assume, but historians have to look at our sources and come up with the most viable explanation, even if it is contrary to what we ourselves have always thought and wanted to believe. If Jesus was crucified by the Romans, he almost certainly was not given a decent burial that afternoon. If that’s true … well, there are rather radical implications. It would NOT mean he was not later raised from the dead. But it WOULD mean that the empty tomb stories (based on a burial by Joseph) are later legends.
Finally, could you please tell us a little bit about your future plans? For example, what book projects are you working on right now? What topics do you want to explore over the next five or ten years?
I have a new book coming out in three weeks (March 1, 2016) that I’m very excited about. It deals with a topic of relevance to this discussion. I have long been struck by the fact (which historians generally take to be a fact) that Jesus died around the year 30 CE, but the first surviving account of his life was not written until around 70 CE (the Gospel of Mark; Matthew and Luke were maybe 10–15 years later than that, and John may another 10–15 years after even that).
So, where did the Gospel writers get their stories of Jesus from? There are compelling reasons for thinking that the authors of our Gospels were not eyewitnesses to Jesus’s life (none of them claims to be). They were living in different countries, in different communities, speaking different languages, decades later. And so how did they get their stories?
For nearly a century now, scholars have argued that they got their stories from the “oral tradition.” That is, people told and retold the stories, until the Gospel writers heard them and wrote them down.
So, about five years ago it occurred to me that scholars of the Gospels would be well served to learn more about what we know about oral cultures, and about story-telling practices, and more broadly about memory. How do we learn things? And remember them? And reimagine them? And forget them? And invent them? And retell them? And then the person we tell a story to: how do they learn, remember, reimagine, forget, invent, and retell them? And the person they tell a story to: how do they…? And so on.
As it turns out, psychologists since the end of the ninetenth century have been interested in how we remember and misremember what we see and hear and otherwise experience; moreover, sociologists since the 1920s have been interested in how social groups affect, transform, and invent the recollections of their individual memories; and since about the same time, cultural anthropologists have studied oral cultures to see how they transmit, transform, alter, invent, preserve, and cherish traditions that are told and retold.
When I started to think about all this, I realized that to understand what happened in the early Christian tradition to the stories about Jesus in circulation for 40–60 years after his death, I should study what psychologists, sociologists, and cultural anthropologists know about all the relevant processes. So, I spent a couple of years reading nothing else. It was fantastic. And among other things, it showed me that standard views among New Testament scholars are simply wrong (e.g., that in oral cultures there is a concerted effort not to change traditions that are told and retold; or that people in antiquity had better memories than we do). And so I wrote my book, soon to be out. It is called Jesus Before the Gospels: How The Earliest Christians Remembered, Changed, and Invented Their Stories of the Savior.
Thank you very much for taking the time to answer our questions. We are looking forward very much to your Focused Civil Dialogue with Michael Licona on the historical evidence for the resurrection — coming soon at TheBestSchools.org.
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