Baker Academic

Monday, February 9, 2015

An Anecdote about Bart Ehrman—Chris Keith

On Facebook today I noticed a post from Bart Ehrman that linked to a blog post of his:  "False Rumors (or lies?) About My Teaching."  In that post, he responds to a reader's question.  The reader has a friend of a friend of a friend of a sixth-cousin on her dad's side (something like this, you know how these things go) who knew someone in his class and reported the following about Bart walking into class the first day:  "The first day of class he walked in and asked if there were any Christians in the room. He then told them that if they were still Christians by the end of the course that they are idiots and would probably fail."

I've never been in any of Bart's classes, but he spends the rest of the blog denying vehemently that he would ever have said such a thing and I believe him.  I've been on the receiving end of this you're-trying-to-destroy-people's-faith charge numerous times myself.  On the one hand, it becomes something that's easy to laugh off after you've heard it so many times and realize that, in reality, most of the people making the charge are just threatened and don't know how else to respond.  On the other hand, and speaking for myself, it can be more than a little bothersome on the odd occasion.  First, it's simply not true.  Second, most (certainly not all) of the people who study the New Testament academically and at the level where they're scholars with college or university posts first got into this discussion for faith reasons.  Whatever we think now (and there's a wide variety of thoughts in the guild), we only think it because of a path that started with sincere commitment to the text and a willingness to study it more in depth than almost anyone in our surrounding friends and family.  Furthermore, almost all of us, regardless of any faith or non-faith position, believe that understanding these texts rightly is important and have dedicated our careers to it.

I thought I'd pass along an anecdote about Bart that relates to this.  Several years ago I'd been invited to teach in an evening course at a church.  After the session wrapped up, a guy I'd never met before and have never seen since came up to me and said, "Do you know who this guy is who teaches at North Carolina?"  I said, "Do you mean Bart Ehrman?" and since I knew where this was going I didn't give him a chance to respond before saying, "Yeah, I know him.  He was one of the editors who published my first book.  He's been very helpful to me in my career."  The guy was stunned and said, I kid you not, "Well I was going to tell you how much I hate him."  I laughed and told him that, believe it or not, Bart was a really nice guy.  Needless to say, this guy was really, really disappointed that I wasn't going to Bart-bash with him.  He was even more disappointed to find out that, lo and behold, Bart doesn't actually have devil horns growing out of his head.  Ok, the last part didn't happen, but the rest of the conversation really did.


  1. You mean the first thing Ehrman said to you when he saw your manuscript *wasn't* "If you're still a Christian by the time I'm done editing this thing, it's not going to be published"??

  2. Chris, thanks for this. I subscribe to Bart's blog, where he manages to respond to just about every comment we leave (usually with one-liners), and he's unfailingly polite. It's a bit of a mystery to me why he drives certain people so crazy. As Bart points out frequently on his blog, his writing and teaching largely reflects the broad consensus of critical scholarship.

    But the business you mention about this scholarship challenging faith ... well, it DOES challenge faith. I see this frequently on the Jewish side of the aisle. Critical Jewish scholars like Marc Brettler and James Kugel deal with this issue head-on. Brettler is a co-founder of the terrific web site, where this issue is front-and-center. Kugel's terrific "How to Read the Bible" contains an explicit "WARNING" that people of traditional faith (a group in which Kugel includes himself) may find his book disturbing and may not want to read it.

    I admire your commitment to truth, wherever it leads. But you have the skill, and your profession affords you the time, to pursue truth more doggedly than most of us can. For most of us, "truth" is in some part a question of who we decide to believe, and trust.

    1. Thanks, Larry. Just to be clear, though, there is a difference between challenging someone's faith and being out to destroy it. Challenging one's own faith and that of others is part and parcel to the whole discussion, of course. But that doesn't necessarily point to an attempt at destruction. I suspect we would agree here.

    2. Chris, if what we're talking about is intent, then I agree 100%. But we can't predict what's going to happen if we challenge our own faith, or someone else's faith. What might be intended as a "challenge" could result in "destruction," regardless of intent. Personally, I'm only interested in a personal faith that is continually challenged, but I don't think everyone feels the way I do. I've encountered people who NEED their faith in a way I do not. For these people, faith is more than a ticket to heaven or whatever else the faith is supposed to provide, but is also needed to keep their families together, or to hold onto a job, or to remain in a community they love.

      Perhaps we should simply assume that all faith is going to get challenged, sooner or later, so it might as well be challenged with the best scholarship and by people (like Bart) who respect faith even when they don’t share it. But I will confess some personal discomfort here, and a considerable personal desire to leave others’ faith as I find it.

    3. Larry, I was talking about intent. So we agree 100%.

  3. I can't imagine a Bible scholar today who is more highly compensated than Bart Ehrman. Neither am I aware of a Bible scholar who puts his blog behind a paywall. I know he says the money goes to the poor, but does he not have enough of his own money to give to the poor? Nevertheless, I don't fault him for this; I just find it odd.

    What I do fault him for is the spread of doubt in Christ. It's bad enough that he has forsaken his own faith, but that his books spread those same doubts to others is far more destructive. Whether he made the sort of statement attributed to him above is irrelevant; his writings are constantly having that effect. I know of no one who has come to faith in Christ reading Ehrman; I know many who have found aid and comfort for their unbelief reading him. How courteous he might be as an individual or professional can't make up for that.

    Before you write me off completely, be sure to think through the fact that you and Bart are professional scholars - equally equipped and prepared to engage each other on issues. But I'm talking about the fact that Ehrman writes books for popular audiences who lack the training and access to resources to counter his arguments. He has expert status, and thus those who lack that status are ill-equipped to resist the force of his rhetoric and the imprimatur of his credentials when reading his popular-level books which are promoted heavily by publishers and commercial media.

    I assume Bart is sincere. That doesn't make him right.