Dr. Bart Ehrman is an accomplished scholar and teacher in ancient biblical texts. He holds a teaching position at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is also an atheist who writes extensively about Jesus, except that the Jesus he writes about is not the Jesus of the Bible.
His latest book is entitled “How Jesus Became God” Some of his other books include: “Jesus Misquoted” “Jesus Interrupted” “Lost Christianities”, and “God’s Problem”. In each of these books, Dr. Ehrman attacks some aspect of the Historical Jesus, the Bible, or the accepted Christian Gospel.
Of course, numerous Christian scholars have written researched and well documented refutations of his books. Surprisingly, very few doubt the evidence he presents. The biblical texts do contain both different accounts and personal retellings. What they accuse Dr. Ehrman of doing is making invalid presuppositions in his argumentation. These presuppositions skew both his view of Jesus and his view of the biblical texts.
A look at Dr. Ehrman’s personal biography shows his transformation from an evangelical Christian, to an agnostic, and finally to an atheist. Dr. Ehrman states that he’s an agnostic on the existence of God, but is most certainly an atheist concerning the personal God of the Bible. The reason for his atheism is actually a common one: the problem of evil and suffering in the world. Dr. Ehrman just couldn’t reconcile how a “supposedly” loving and caring God, as we read about in the Bible, could allow so much suffering and evil in the world. This eventually led him to the conclusion that the Judeo-Christian God of the Bible does not exist.
Dr. Ehrman grew up in Kansas in the mid 1950’s. His family faithfully attended an Episcopal Church in Lawrence, Kansas. During his high school years, Bart had a “born again” experience and began attending Youth for Christ. Bruce, a leader of the local Youth for Christ group, help to lead Bart into a “born again experience.1
Bart was very impressed by Bruce’s knowledge of the Bible and decided he wanted to be a serious student of Bible.
With that desire deep in his heart, young Bart Ehrman went to Moody Bible Institute in fall of 1973. During his time at Moody, Bart took traditional Bible courses such as biblical and systematic theology.
At the time, Moody Bible Institute had a strong emphasis on a particular type of Biblical inerrancy called “verbal plenary inspiration.” This view taught that there were no errors in the original manuscripts.
College student Bart Ehrman soon discovered that we don’t have any of the original manuscripts of the New Testament. He then began to wonder about the accuracy of the texts we do have. Did the scribes who copied the New Testament manuscripts change, alter or distorted the written texts? Whether intentional or unintentional, could scribal errors and changes, made for theological or political reasons, have corrupted the New Testament texts? These questions concerning the transmission of the New Testament manuscripts led Bart to take additional courses at Moody on textual criticism.3
After graduating from Moody in 1976, Ehrman had an even stronger desire to be a Christian scholar. Despite his doubts, he continue his education at Wheaton College, a major American Evangelical college.4 While at Wheaton, he took courses in New Testament Greek. During his time there, he increasingly questioned the relevancy of believing in Biblical inerrancy. We don’t have the original manuscripts of the New Testament. Scraps do exist from the late first and second century, but the only complete manuscript copies we have were supposedly written hundreds of years later.5
After graduating from Wheaton with these questions still in his mind, Ehrman went on to Princeton Theological Seminary where he studied under the renowned Greek scholar, Bruce Metzger. He took even more courses in Old Testament Hebrew and New Testament Greek. The deeper he went into these courses, the further Bart’s confidence in the doctrine of inerrancy continued to erode.6
Dr. Ehrman’s total abandonment of his view of biblical inerrancy came when he did a term paper on a passage from the Gospel of Mark for his professor, Cullen Story. For his term paper, Ehrman looked at the story 2 where Jesus has a confrontation with the Pharisees over the disciples picking the heads of grain on the Sabbath. In the course of the confrontation, Jesus justifies his actions by appealing to the Old Testament. When David was on the run from King Saul, David went into the temple to eat the consecrated bread “when Abiathar was the High Priest.” Bart then looked at 1 Samuel 21:1-6 where it describes that during this very time when David ate the sacred bread in the temple, it was Abimelech who was the High Priest. Abimelech was the father of Abiathar. So Dr Ehrman started to wonder if the author of the Gospel of Mark made a mistake. Was the text in error by recounting the wrong man as high priest when David ate the consecrated bread?
When he handed in his term paper to Dr. Story, Dr. Story agreed with Dr. Ehrman by writing a one liner on his term paper that said, “Maybe Mark did make a mistake“.7
Everything went downhill for Ehrman from this point on. He found more supposed errors in the Bible. By the time he left Princeton Theological Seminary, he completely rejected the evangelical doctrine of Biblical inerrancy.8
Hal Lindsay’s book “The Late Great Planet Earth” also contributed to Bart’s erosion of confidence in Biblical inerrancy. One of Lindsay’s assertions in the book is that Jesus would return in 1988, a generation of forty years after the modern rebirth of Israel in 1948. When Jesus did not return in 1988, that only confirmed Bart’s doubts about the inerrancy of the Bible.9
Dr. Ehrman states that his problems with the Bible led him away from his evangelical beliefs that he had learned in Moody and Wheaton. Though he had abandoned his evangelical beliefs about the Bible, yet he still considered himself a “liberal Christian.”
It was not the problem of missing original New Testament texts, it was the problem of evil and suffering that led Dr. Ehrman to totally reject Christianity. He states that the facts of scripture do not match with the hard facts of life. Given all the suffering and pain in the world, the God of goodness and love that Bible proclaims simply does not exist.10
Now that we’ve looked at the reasons for Dr. Ehrman’s presuppositions about the bible, in the next two articles Dr. Ehrman’s agnosticism will be answered. Then Dr. Ehrman’s atheism concerning the God of the Bible will be examined: Can he justify his atheism concerning the God of the Bible based on the suffering and pain in the world?
1 Bart Ehrman Misquoting Jesus 1,2
2 Ibid 4
4 Ibid. 5,6
5 Ibid. 7,10
6 Ibid 7
7 Ibid. 9
8 Ibid. 9-11
9 Ibid. 12
10 Bart Ehrman, God’s Problem 3