On March 9, 2009, Indy reporter Fiona Morgan sat down with Bart Ehrman, UNC’s James A. Gray Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies, to discuss his latest book, Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (and Why We Don’t Know About Them).
INDY: Maybe we should start with your personal story, which you tell in your books.
BART EHRMAN: I was a born-again Christian in high school and I went off to a fundamentalist Bible college and got interested in teaching the New Testament at the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago. My original plan was to get a Ph.D. in New Testament studies and to teach at a secular university as an evangelical Christian. I don’t think I talk about this in the book, actually. But when I went on to do a Ph.D. after my fundamentalist training in college, I started realizing that my evangelical views of the Bible were problematic.
I went to Princeton Theological Seminary, where the faculty was not evangelical, and I took courses in the New Testament and studied the New Testament in Greek and started finding what my professors had said, that there were discrepancies in the Bible, contradictions. Once you start seeing discrepancies in the Bible, you start seeing lots of them, and that’s what I did. So my view of scripture started changing drastically.
What this book is about is what I found, both initially as a graduate student and in the 30 years or so since, studying the Bible: contradictions between gospels, discrepancies, different points of view between one author and another, some books of the New Testament that weren’t really written by the people that they claim to be written by, important doctrines like the divinity of Christ and the doctrine of the Trinity, which weren’t the original teachings of Christianity. Historical findings that call into question the kind of evangelical faith I had as a young man.
You mention the Trinity. Where did that come from?
That’s a good question. The earliest Christians appear to have thought that Jesus was the Jewish Messiah. In Jewish thinking, the Messiah was not a divine figure, but was a human being chosen by God to fulfill some grand purpose on earth. But over time Christians started thinking Jesus was more than just a great human or a human chosen by God. They began to think of Jesus as the Son of God in a unique sense, so that by the time you get toward the end of the New Testament period, the end of the first century, there are people thinking of Jesus himself as in some sense God.
If Jesus is God and God is God, doesn’t that mean you’ve got two gods? Well, these people who started out as monotheists, who believed in only one God, if you’ve got only God, and God is God and Jesus is God, you’ve got to come up with some way to deal with that. What ended up happening is people started thinking that the Spirit of God was also God. So you’ve got three different divine beings, but they wanted to insist there was only one.
It took actually a couple of centuries of debate before Christians came up with the doctrine of the Trinity: One God, manifest in three persons, all of whom are equally God and different from each other but there aren’t three gods, there’s only one God.
You don’t find this in the earliest parts of the New Testament and you certainly don’t find it in the teachings of Jesus. It’s a later development.
Where does it originate? In the Book of John?
No, John doesn’t even have the Trinity. The Gospel of John is the last gospel to be written, and it does understand that Jesus is divine and somehow different from God. But it doesn’t have this formulation that there’s a Trinity, God in three persons. At least 160 years after Jesus’ death is the first time you have anybody talking specifically about the Trinity.
In Misquoting Jesus, you describe some of the changes scribes made, both accidentally and intentionally, in the text of New Testament. Most are small, but in some cases there are whole passages that the scribes inserted.
That is what Misquoting Jesus is about, and I talk a little about it in the new book, Jesus, Interrupted, that we don’t have any of the originals of the New Testament. What we have are copies made later, usually centuries later, and these copies are all different from each other, sometimes in big ways, most of the time in little ways. We have thousands of these manuscripts, but these thousands of manuscripts have hundreds of thousands of differences in them. A lot of them are just misspelled words that don’t matter much, if anything, but there are big differences too. There are some entire passages that were inserted or omitted in one manuscript or another.
For example, the story in which Mary Magdalene is about to be stoned by the crowd until Jesus intervenes and says, “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.”
It’s an interesting story. Later tradition identified her as Mary Magdalene, but actually the story doesn’t. This is a mistake people make because in all the Jesus movies, she’s Mary Magdalene. But she’s an unnamed woman who gets caught in the act of adultery. So yeah, “Let the one who is without sin be the first to cast a stone at her.” This entire story, a beautiful story that in some ways you could argue is the favorite story of people who read the Gospels, wasn’t in the Gospels. It’s only found in the Gospel of John, and it’s not found in the earliest and best manuscripts of John. So scholars for hundreds of years have known that it wasn’t part of John, it was a story that was added later by scribes because it’s found only in our later manuscripts.
That’s a big one.
There are a few big ones. And there are lots of little ones.
You wrote more than a dozen books before you wrote Misquoting Jesus, which became a phenomenon of sorts. It ended up on the New York Times bestseller list. What happened in your work and in your audience? What kind of feedback did you start to get?
I did write two or three books that I meant for the Barnes & Noble crowd before Misquoting Jesus, that did not make the New York Times bestseller list, but they sold pretty well. But Misquoting Jesus for some reason really sort of caught people’s attention in a way the other books didn’t, I think in part because it’s less academic than the other books. The other books were still pretty learned books. I think my best book actually for that crowd is a book called Lost Christianities, but it’s more substantive, there’s more meat in it.
The thing I did differently in Misquoting Jesus is I started telling about how this kind of information, in this case about scribes who copied the text and changed it over time, I talk about how that historical information affected me personally and affected my faith journey, and I think people latched on to that because it made it more down to earth and they could see the significance of it better instead of just talking about it as a kind of academic exercise. That’s what I’ve continued doing in Jesus, Interrupted, talking about how this information, discrepancies and contradictions and probably forgeries in the New Testament, how it affected my personal faith.
It’s interesting that even years after you went through this process while you were at Princeton of starting to lose your faith, you’ve still dedicated your career to the New Testament.
Yeah, some people wonder about that. But it’s never occurred to me that this is a problem. In a university, you have all sorts of people teaching all sorts of things they don’t believe in: people in the philosophy department who teach Plato who aren’t Platonists, people in the political science department who teach Marxism but they’re not communists. People teach criminology who’ve never murdered anybody. My wife teaches Chaucer, but she doesn’t believe in Chaucer, it’s what she teaches. What’s more important than the Bible? The New Testament’s the most important book in the history of civilization.
Once you put yourself out there, you become a target. I know there’s a book out there called Misquoting Truth: A Guide to the Fallacies of Bart Ehrman’s ‘Misquoting Jesus.’
There were actually three books written against Misquoting Jesus. That was one of them. And there are a lot of Web sites and blogs and things that attack me. The way I deal with that is by not reading them. [Laughs.]
I think intelligent people can read what I’ve written and then can read what people have said in response and then decide for themselves who’s got the better argument. I don’t feel a need to respond to my critics or anything like that.
In this new book, in Jesus, Interrupted, I do talk a little bit about the response to Misquoting Jesus, because I have a chapter called “How We Got the Bible,” where about a third of the chapter deals with this problem that we don’t have the original but we have these copies. And so I really had to deal with what people have said about Misquoting Jesus, and what I point out in this chapter is that nobody has disagreed with any of these eight or nine major theses, because they’re true. I think people have objected to the tone of the book maybe, or they don’t like the fact that I talk about how I changed my view of the Bible because of these differences in the manuscripts, but nobody disagrees with any of the scholarship in the book. I think that’s significant.
Even more than your previous books, Jesus, Interrupted tries to bridge the gap between what scholars have decided they know about the Bible and what the average church-going, Bible-reading Christian knows about that scholarship. Most people have no idea these conversations are even going on, and you make the point that you think people would like to know.
It’s a very odd phenomenon that pastors who go to mainline denominational seminariesMethodist, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Episcopalian, these kind of standard Protestant and also Catholic seminariesthis is the material they learn in their Bible classes. But when they start working in the church, it’s as if they forget it all, or they decide not to tell their parishioners about it.
So church people have never heard of this stuff, and scholars who do this kind of thing for a living are terrible at communicating it. And so the person on the street doesn’t know either. There’s not a New Testament scholar in the country that’ll learn a single thing from this book, yet most people have never heard any of this before.
You’ve said you get invited to speak at churches. Who would risk their parishioners doubting?
They tend to be fairly open-minded churches. The only time I get invited to evangelical churches is if they are staging some kind of public debate.
Sometimes I’ll go to a very large evangelical church where they’ll have someone debating me. I was in an Episcopal church in Memphis three weeks ago, and it’s a very open, affirming church that has a very liberal social agenda and sees itself as open-minded. There were a lot of complaints from people that I was going to be there, but the church said look, this is information we need to know, we don’t have to agree with everything he says. So I get that kind of church setting.
What do people want to know?
People are often surprised about this information I’m presenting. They want to know whether this is just the liberal view of some professor at Chapel Hill, and I tell them, the stuff that I’ve just told you in this lecture is stuff scholars have been saying for over 100 years. This isn’t new and it’s not unique to me. This is what I learned when I went to a Presbyterian seminary. So they’re surprised to hear that, especially if their pastor went to Princeton Theological Seminary and never told them any of this stuff.
Do people contact you, e-mail or send you letters, and say, I really wish I’d known this? Do they say they’re going through some doubt themselves? Do you get personal response like that?
Tons. Just before you came, I read about six letters from people. Here’s one from a guy who had a very similar experience to what I had, went to Moody Bible Institute and then went to a Presbyterian seminary and lost his faith and became an agnostic. And he’s written me a four-page hand-written letter. He left his e-mail address. Frankly, I don’t answer snail mail because I just don’t have time, but I get dozens of e-mails every day and I answer just about every e-mail except for e-mails that are antagonistic I get a lot of people who have a similar spiritual journey who are interested in hearing somebody speak out about it. I get people who tell me they’re sad to hear that I’ve lost my faith and they want me to change my mind. I get a lot of e-mails from people who agree with me, with what I say about the New Testament, but if I would just join their religion I wouldn’t have these problems. Those people tend to be either Muslim or Mormon. [Laughs.] A couple days ago I got something from somebody who was Baha’i who thought I should join the Baha’i faith.
They’re welcoming you with open arms.
I think it’s a free world. They’re welcome to convert me. I’m welcome to convert them.
You talk about when you went off to Princeton that there were a lot of people studying there who intended to be clergy whose attitude toward the Bible was, “It’s a really interesting book,” versus your attitude toward the Bible, which was that you wanted to get as close to the original as you possibly could because you believed that meant getting close to God. Do you think that because that biblical literalism was at the cornerstone of your faith that it was that much harder for you?
Yeah, absolutely. These Bible course people take in seminary almost always come as a shock to people because they haven’t head this material before. For a lot of seminary students, it does cause them to doubt the Bible, which is a bit of a shock to their system, but their faith is rooted in other thingsfor example, the worship of God in the Christian liturgy or their experience of God personally. The fact the Bible might have errors in it isn’t something that destroys their faith.
But if your faith is rooted in a belief in the Bible, in a literal understanding of the Bible, and that gets taken away from you, then what do you have left? You either have to change the way you believe or you have to give up your belief.
What happened in my case is I actually didn’t give up my belief because of any of this. My understanding of the Bible changed and I became a kind of mainstream, mainline, liberal Christian who thought the Bible had discrepancies but I still believed in God and still believed Christ was the Son of God and still believed in his death for salvation and all those things. The reason I became an agnostic is unrelated to this material. I have another book that came out a year ago on the problem of suffering called God’s Problem, and in that book I talk about how I actually lost my faith, which was related to my problem believing that there could be a good God in control of this world given the state of things, given all the suffering and pain in the world. That’s what led me to leave the faith, not my change in my views of the Bible.
You teach an intro to religion course here at UNC. You probably see students all over the spectrum of religious belief. How do they respond to you?
I do get a wide range of students. The majority of my students are North Carolina students, born and raised, and most of them have a religious background, and in most cases that means some kind of evangelical Christian background, most often Baptist. And so I get a range of reactions to what I teach in class. This semester in my Intro to the New Testament class I have about 240 students. I’d say 210 of them are conservative evangelical Christians. But the thing is, they know what they’re going to get in the class because the word is out about the class, so they’re not really blindsided.
Some of the students don’t really want to hear about it, so they kind of stick their fingers in their ears and hum hard so they don’t have to listen. But a lot of them take the class because they really want to hear it. Some of them want to take the class so they can argue against me among their friends who take the class. But most students, I think, find it very interesting and challenging. Some of them want to hear another perspective from the one they were raised on. In my class, I don’t simply tell them my opinions. When the Gospels tell a story I have them compare the two Gospels and look at the similarities and differences and have them figure out why there are so many differences. That can be pretty convincing to somebody.
Do you think the success of your books is part of a trend of fact-based intellectually inquiry that’s being popularized?
I don’t know how this is happening exactly, but there does seem to be an aspect of the culture war that’s going on right now where the religious right that has sort of controlled religion for a long time in this country, you do seem to have a backlash against it.
On the far left of that are the new atheists, people like Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, who are really embracing atheism and are attacking religion. I’m not in that camp, because I’m not opposed to religion and I’m not trying to convert people to atheism. I’m not an atheist myself.
But part of the reaction against the right is historical scholarship on the Bible, and that’s where I fit in. I’m pointing out what historians have been saying about the Bible for all these years that people on the right have often never heard of.
Earlier you were asking about my audience. I think part of my audience are a group of people on the left who want to hear some alternative voice to the religious right, and there are people who are open-minded who want to hear another side of the story from what they’ve heard before. And part of my audience is the evangelical audience who wants to hear what the other side is saying so they can attack it.
What will be your next book?
The book I’m working on now is actually a book for scholars that deals with an interesting topic that I might end up writing a book for a general audience on it. I actually deal with it somewhat in the book Jesus, Interrupted. A portion of that book is on this phenomenon of literary forgery, where people in early Christianity write books claiming to be the Apostle Paul or the Apostle Peter or being Mary Magdalene or being someone they’re not. It turns out there’s a lot of that in early Christianity.
My next popular book I’m tentatively entitling How Jesus Became God. The question is, If Jesus started out being thought of as a Jewish man who was a prophet, who some people thought was the Messiahin other words he wasn’t thought to be Godhow is it that by the fourth century people were saying he was equal with the Father and existed forever and created the universe? How do you get from a Jewish prophet to the lord of the universe? How’d that happen, exactly?
It sounds like a video game.
Exactly. I’ll probably write it a year and a half from now.
Easter’s coming up. Can you tell us anything we might not know about Easter?
Oh, I could tell you lots. [Laughs.] You might not want to print it right before Easter.
On April 2, I’m having a debate at Southern Evangelical Seminary with a Christian apologist who’s a strong evangelical Christian, a really nice guy named Mike Licona. The debate topic is, “Can historians prove that Jesus was raised from the dead?” and he’s going to be arguing yes and I’m going to be arguing no. I’m not going to be arguing that Jesus was not raised from the dead; what I’m going to be arguing is that even if he was raised from the dead, historians can’t prove it, because of the nature of historical evidence, you can’t prove something like a miracle. You can believe it, but you can’t prove it.