My Interview with Bart Ehrman

Earlier this week, I interviewed Bart Ehrman, New Testament scholar at UNC. We talked about his latest book, Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (And Why We Don’t Know about Them). Among the other topics: philosophical hermeneutics, seminary education, preaching, conspiracy theories, and his Holy Week appearance on The Colbert Report.

I think we had a really enjoyable conversation, and he pretty much stayed off his usual talking points from this book tour. What I’m saying is, he’s done a lot of media in the last couple months, but I don’t think he’s gotten too many questions about philosophical hermeneutics.

While I am sorry that Bart lost his faith, I think he’s an honest guy. His the contradictions in scripture are not “hidden” from me, so he didn’t reveal them. And they don’t tempt me to abandon faith — not at all. So my real interest was in Bart’s motivation for writing these popular books that debunk the literalist, inerrantist, objectivist readings of the Bible. I think, by the end of the half hour, we got there.

I’m really looking forward to your comments on the interview.

Link to the audio after the jump.

To listen, click on the link below, or right click and “Save As” to download the mp3.

Tony Jones Interviews Bart Ehrman

(Thanks to Tripp and Chad at Homebrewed Christianity for hosting the audio. The interview will be part of a future HBC podcast.)

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  • to clarify, Bart did not lose his faith because of the contradictions in the Bible. he wrote a whole book about why he lost his faith, and it is because of the “problem of suffering” and how a “good god” could “allow” suffering in the world.
    i’ve heard enough interviews to know he gets irked when people think he lost his faith over contradictions in the Bible.

  • Ann

    Great interview Tony! As to the infallibility of scripture…. I was taught that it meant that when the Bible was read and interpreted for its purpose, revealing God to us and showing us the way of salvation, that it would not mislead you.

  • ChrisM

    After hearing all the inerrancy discussion, could you do a posting on the history of inerrancy within Christian thought (or repost if you’ve done this and I’m just forgetting)? My impression of the history based on informal training is that inerrancy is more of a modern construct created in response to 19th Century Rationalism and has low historical underpinnings in all the centuries prior. So if that’s an inaccurate assessment, I’d love to have my impression corrected, but if there is low historical support, then that should speak heavily to those who are overly dogmatic about a relatively recent interpretation.
    The staff at the Baptist megachurch I attend would die if they saw what I’m getting at here!!

  • AC

    Regarding the inerrancy question, I think its clear that inerrancy was held in the OT, NT and among the early church fathers. On the anniversary that Luther stood before the Diet of Worms, choosing to risk death rather than to renounce Sola Scriptura (among other things) shows that inerrancy does have a long and clear history, (not failing to mention Scripture’s own internal testamony on this matter. The 19-20th Century Rationalist debate knew that inerrancy along with the deity of Christ were the two most important doctrines on which Christianity stood. By debasing them, the rest of the system could not stand. Its not surprising that someone who chooses to argue against the faith would choose to fight using one of these two key columns of support.

  • Dan Hauge

    Yes, the inerrancy conversation does confuse me a bit. Because while it is true that the current definitions of ‘inerrancy’ did indeed arise in response to modern rationalism, I’m not sure that is as sweeping a claim as we sometimes make it out to be. Sometimes it sounds like ‘nobody thought that the Bible was literally or historically true until the late 19th century’ which I don’t think is quite right. (I just saw an account in a documentary about Christopher Columbus searching for the historical Garden of Eden. Say what you will about Columbus, his thought did not emerge in response to modernity). It seems to be more that the terms of the debate, and the way the issues are framed, are distinctly modern or post-modern in how we think of ‘inerrancy’. But you can find plenty of Reformed theologians, medieval theologians, and other pre-modernity theologians who read the Bible in a fairly literalist way. I don’t mean this comment as a big ‘defense of inerrancy’, because I don’t believe that. But I would like to see, in more depth, what we mean when we say that believing in historical accuracy of Scripture is a purely modern invention.

  • AC,
    With respect to Luther: from what I understand, Luther sat before the Diet of Worms with a stack of all of his own books and was asked to renounce everything they contained. He reasoned that he could not do so, because this would place him well beyond the boundaries of orthodoxy – much of what he had written contained no deviation from the Church’s teaching at the time. To focus narrowly on the issue of Sola Scriptura in the context of the Diet of Worms could be a bit misleading – I’m sure you can see why.

  • Rev Dave

    Hey look everybody: Tony had a conversation that didn’t result in a fight! (“I ked, I ked, is just a little joke”)
    As a pastor I heard Ehrman’s comments as a challenge and charge (in the good sense) as regards my preaching and teaching. No, I/we don’t talk/teach much about discrepancies in scripture, but then we aren’t in the literalist/inherent camp, so it hasn’t really been an issue. And biblical criticism does come into play frequently.
    I do agree that the methodology in seminary needs a major overhaul. (at least in the two I’ve attended, I can’t speak directly to others. Though this is not an uncommon or new complaint so I suspect it to be true about many places.) I seem to recall that Tony wrote about this some in New Christians but I don’t have the text here to look it up.
    One idea that I’ve had since about my second month in seminary – which has been affirmed by my 14 years in churches – is that at least those of us serving congregations would be much better served by some courses in sociology, psychology, systems theory and the like than by Greek and Hebrew. I’ve never needed to know how many 2nd aorist blah blah blah there are in Matthew, but I’ve often needed to be able to read the subtext of the hostility exhibited by a member in a board meeting regarding a major decision.
    But there is so much money, time, energy and people invested in the institution of seminary that I fear real change will be very slow and very hard to come by.

  • Ann

    I think we need a clear definition of inerrancy before we can really debate this or we will end up in an argument where we are talking past each other.
    Is it safe to say that inerrancy means that the Bible has no factual errors?
    In that case, the Bible does not claim this for itself and I am unaware of any church council where this issue was debated.

  • I found this to be really insightful. I’ve tended to dismiss Ehrman (and others) in the past for being hopelessly modern and having an axe to grind against conservative evangelicals. Not that he doesn’t have anything good to say, I’d just rather move beyond pointing out contradictions and scribal errors, etc.
    But it was really good to hear where he is coming from and understand that he’s not just out for the shock value. I hope more people listen to it.

  • Darius T.

    What do you mean by factual errors? I think all serious reformed theologians would stipulate that when Jesus fed the 5000, he probably didn’t feed exactly 5000 people. Inerrancy should be defined, in my opinion, by the following statement: In it’s original form (the original manuscripts), the Bible was without error and free from any contradiction, trustworthy in everything it said. And there is Scriptural warrant for the belief that the apostles and Jesus viewed the Scriptures in such a manner (Gal. 3 and Matthew 5).

  • Ann

    Darius- by your own definition, you would say that the Bible we have today (because it is NOT the original manuscript) is not inerrant.

  • Devin
    It seems to me that if we get into a debate on whether the Bible is inerrant or infallible, and what those specific definitions mean, that we will only end up grinding each other under specific definitions. Not that this doesn’t have its place, but I doubt that it is the internet.
    What if we just started with the fact that the Bible, the Christian Scriptures, are the Word of God? That they are extremely important in our understanding of who God is, what God has been doing throughout history, and insight into who we are as people. From there, what if we respectfully gave each other our opinions and reasons for believing them? If we did that and realized that we won’t ever fully agree with each other, then we might be able to learn a bit more from each other.
    If we sat and listened to people, such as Bart, Tony, Kevin, etc., without thinking about how we are going to debunk them, we would probably always be able to walk away having learned something positive.

  • Joey

    Darius T.
    I don’t fault you for your definition of inerrancy but that definition seems a bit useless unless you have all of the original manuscripts to use for Biblical study. I love scripture and affirm its God-breathed-ness but that doesn’t lead me to use the word inerrant. I think that it is “useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness” yet I still don’t see inerrancy as a necessity. It is true and points creation towards Christ but whether or not there are no factual errors or contradictions just doesn’t seem to fit what we can see in scripture. For instance, how does a proponent of inerrancy explain Jesus’ genealogy? Jesus has no direct blood connection to David, unless of course Joseph provided the seed (which I’m not suggesting he did). There is a theological explanation that makes great sense (keeping a direct line from Adam to David so that, “For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.” makes sense) but that doesn’t rid us of the fact that there is a “factual” error.
    I love scripture, I teach scripture, and I don’t use the word inerrant. Am I wrong?
    Deciding not to use the word

  • Tim

    Joey wrote: “deciding not to use the word” should have been deleted. My bad. Please disregard that unfinished sentence.
    I observe: scribal copying errors continue, perhaps even more frequently than in ages past. 🙂

  • ChrisM

    Well said Devin – love your heart
    To add to my original solicitation for a posting on the historicity, to know how the definition has changed is beneficial because inerrancy was clearly defined differently by those in a pre-scientific method era versus how we in a post-scientific method, post-Rationalism era define it.
    I see issues with having the modern definition contain scientific accuracy language unless we adapt “scientific accuracy” to be reflective of antiquated science in the ancient times, otherwise you’d have to admit that the Bible is wrong by classifying a bat as a bird in Leviticus 11:19. Similarly, to say that the ancients were wrong to provide genealogies that were telescoped in order to arrange their lists in multiples of 7 or 10 merely because we now do genealogies by strict chronological order is to make them adhere to our modern view of accuracy. I know, sounds like some squishitude is entering the discussion.

  • Tony,
    That was a great interview! I really appreciated your attitude and your ability to take the interview to a different place than the typical bashing of biblical criticism. I know you tend to take many parts of the bible very literally, but you were still able to have a reasonable conversation with Dr. Ehrman. I applaud you for that. It showed great maturity on your part.

  • Tucker

    That’s a great interview Tony. I am not familiar with Ehrman, though I have seen his books and considered reading one or two. For various reasons I have not. This interview helped me appreciate where he is coming from. I now have two of his books on reserve at the library. I have to say as well that the way you drew him out in the interview, let him speak, went deep, provided some historical background to the issues, and kept the whole thing cordial & moving was well done. I don’t know what kind of interviews he is used to, but I guess yours has got to be one of the most thoughtful. Though I am likely to disagree with him on many points (I am a Christian and he is not, which is one big difference) I feel that he may represent a thoughtful challenge to some things I hold either too dear or uncritically. Thanks again.

  • I really appreciated the level of respect you showed in this interview.
    My experience in life has shown many times that people are first drawn to the Lord by the example of another Christian, and not the scripture at all. I am not suggesting that Bart will find his way back to faith though an interview like this, but when someone shows a reflection of Christ like what you’ve shown here, it certainly can’t hurt in influencing his thinking.

  • Mainline Christian

    Thank you for posting this interview. Ehrman is obviously a populizer of current Jesus Scholarship. And that’s much needed. People in the pews often don’t know this material because people in the pulpits don’t talk about it much. It’s wonderful to have people like Ehrman and Borg, who attempt to bridge the gap between the theology in seminaries and the theology in congregations.
    The only critique I’d offer is that the first half of the interview was overly dominated by the interviewer. It would have been nice to hear more from Ehrman during the first half of the interview. But the second half was much better.
    Most authors are beating down the door to talk with Stewart and Colbert. Ehrman must be pretty cool if he’s been on their shows several times. Props to Ehrman!

  • Hey, everyone, “Mainline Christian” also goes by “Sara,” “Intramural Squabbler,” and “A-Team Fan.” She and I have communicated regularly on Facebook and email, so it seems a bit strange to me that she refers to me as “the interviewer.”
    Anyway, thought you might want to know.

  • ChrisM and others – the link above is what one Episcopal priest had to say about the history of literalism. The comments underneath are also worth reading.

  • Ken

    About 2/3 of this interview was taken up by your stuttering and stammering while trying to frame a question. Bart Ehrman is a facinating guest,when he actually gets to speak. Perhaps you should have questions written out beforehand? I hope I’m not coming across too harsh but your audience and your guest deserve more articulation and brevity from the host.

  • Sara

    Sorry to make you defensive, Tony. I just thought the first half of the interview could have been handled better. No big deal. Nobody is perfect. I still think you’re smart and all. Cheers!

  • Mr. T!

    Hey! Wait a minute!
    “Mainline Christian”, “Sara”, “Intramural Squabbler”, and “A-Team Fan” are all the same person!?! Dangit!
    Sara, thy names are legion. You could handle your posting personalities better. No big deal… just, wow… okay. Nobody is perfect.
    Alrighty then.
    The internet can be such a gnostic, disembodied place.

  • Ann

    I wasn’t aware that some of the Pauline epistles were potentially not written by Paul. Is there a theory of why someone would forge Paul’s name to Ephesians. How is it that scholars go about determining authorship of the books of the Bible. It’s weird that the NIV study bible boldly claims that Paul wrote Ephesians when apparently there is some doubt out there.

  • Larry

    Ann, ancients weren’t as fussy as we are about attribution, it was common for students or disciples of a person to write, in this case, “in the spirit of Paul”. Scholars look at the tone of works, the vocabulary used, the content (contradictions, agreement, etc.), to determine authorship. Among the works generally accredited to Paul there are three questionable letters: 2nd Thessalonians, Ephesians, Colossian, and three others that few scholars dispute were written by someone other than Paul: 1st and 2nd Timothy and Titus.

  • Korey

    To follow up on Larry’s comment, as I understand it, the importance of originality increased substantially after the advent of the printing press. It became important with the commoditization of printed works. And the term plagiarize dates back to the 16th century when “stealing” words began to have increasing moral implications.

  • Anon

    The NIV is a fairly theologically conservative translation. It was commissioned by a group of evangelicals who viewed the RSV as tainted by theological liberalism (namely, that the doctrine of the virgin birth was not clearly indicated by using the term “young woman” rather than “virgin,” and they felt that the Messianic prophecies in the Old Testament were obscured). The NIV, in turn, has been criticized as working in too much apologetics, when it suits the evangelical theology. Given this background, it is unsurprising that your NIV Study Bible materials would not dwell on Pauline authorship debates.

  • Ann

    Thanks for the clarification on the NIV. It just goes to show that your average person in the pew doesn’t know enough about this kind of stuff. I think it is unfortunate that churches/pastors/priests don’t do more to inform their congregants.
    Oddly enough, our sermon last Sunday was basically a historical critique of the gospel of John. That type of sermon does come off a bit odd when you listen to it from the pew, but it was so interesting. It’s probably not surprising that the deacon who gave the sermon interviewed Ehrman last week.

  • Jason

    Before we all get crazy and excited about Bart Ehrman’s “scholarship,” perhaps we should see what other scholars think about it. . . .

  • Wally Shifflett

    From the “Lutheran Hour” speaker’s devotions”
    Pitiful People”
    May 25, 2009
    And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. 1 Corinthians 15:17-19
    Dr. Bart Ehrman isn’t trying to destroy anyone’s faith.
    On the other hand Dr. Ehrman, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, has concluded
    19 of the 27 books in the New Testament are forgeries;
    the divinity of Jesus isn’t based on anything the Savior or His early followers said;
    Jesus didn’t rise from the dead and the disciples had “visions” of Jesus.
    No, Dr. Bart Ehrman, like many other scholars, isn’t trying to destroy people’s faith. On the other hand, when he is done sharing his point of view, a great many who listen to him will find their faith is left with, well, nothing.
    That is the point St. Paul made centuries ago when he said, “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile . . . . ”
    Paul was right and the logic is simple: if Jesus didn’t rise, then those who die with faith in Him will not rise. If believers don’t rise from the dead, then what is the point of Christianity? The faith becomes nothing more than a compilation of wise, but non-inspired sayings, which encourage people to do good stuff.
    But Christianity is more than just another compendium of deep thoughts.
    More than 1900 years before Dr. Ehrman and his fellow non-believers were born, our all-knowing Lord anticipated their doubts and denials. Not only did God anticipate these doubting deniers of the resurrection, He also spoke to them through Peter who said, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge, for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:19b-20).
    That is the way it has always been. People can believe fallible man or their faithful Lord. For me there is no choice. I pray it is the same for you.

  • freidenker

    To Wally Shifflett
    May 28, 2009 2:24 PM
    From the “Lutheran Hour” speaker’s devotions”
    Re: “That is the way it has always been. People can believe fallible man or their faithful Lord. For me there is no choice. I pray it is the same for you”
    Comment: You are not believing your faithful Lord. You did not receive your beliefs directly from him. You are believing fallible man. All knowledge of religion comes through fallible men. Do you believe that Joseph Smith was given instant knowledge that allowed him to translate the golden tablets, or that Mohammed actually rode a buraq to heaven to converse with God? (A buraq is a creature like a horse with wings.) You have no more proof than has been offered for these “beliefs”.

  • Bart has several problems. Many people, from Dr. James White to Dr. Dan Wallace to Dr. Ben Witherington, have taken Bart to task on his assumptions and speculations.
    I would suggest the very detailed article by Dr. Ben Witherington here:
    And my most recent article I reproduce below:
    Bart Ehrman is making the rounds selling his books and pushing his agnostic theology. From what I understand, he charges $5,000 to engage in debates, while others of similar popularity charge nothing (like Dr. James White).
    Too many people are all too willing to blindly accept what Bart Ehrman says, no matter how erroneous or how unscholarly it may be.
    For example, in his latest book, Jesus, Interrupted, he tries to argue that the Bible has many contradictions and historical discrepancies in it. Now despite the fact that people like John W. Haley (way back in 1874, Alleged Discrepancies of the Bible) have written books before he was born refuting such contradiction and discrepancy claims, Bart wants to pretend that his contradiction claims stand when they do not. Even of late, people like Dr. Norman Geisler, who wrote When Critics Ask (1992), have soundly answered and refuted these silly claims. Yet Bart feigns otherwise and arrogantly claims his misreadings must be valid no matter how many more able scholars have concluded otherwise.
    Another example of Bart’s dishonesty comes on page 32 of Jesus, Interrupted. In dealing with the slaughter of the innocents recorded in Matthew 2:16, he says:
    “In terms of the historical record, I should also point out that there is no account in any ancient source whatsoever about King Herod slaughtering children in or around Bethlehem, or anyplace else. No other author, biblical or otherwise, mentions the event. Is it, like John’s account of Jesus’ death, a detail made up by Matthew in order to make some kind of theological point?”
    There are two glaring problems here. First, Bart’s dishonesty is revealed by the fact that he failed to point out that what Matthew says is completely historically consistent with what history says of Herod. This madman killed his wife and his own sons. And more importantly, his sons were killed for being contenders to his throne. Why did Herod try to kill Jesus? Because he was also a contender, in his mind. And it does not need to be said that if you can murder your own flesh and blood, your own sons, you can easily murder the sons of others. Why didn’t Bart inform his readers of THAT little detail? I can think of no rational alternative but a dishonest desire to deceive.
    Second, to argue about who doesn’t mention a thing is to fallaciously argue from silence. And you can make up anything in your own self-made vaccuum of silence. So it appears that it’s Bart who’s making things up against the historical record, not Matthew.
    And finally, one of the most egregious examples of poor scholarship comes from Bart on page 147, where he tries to cast doubt on the accuracy of Gospel traditions handed down orally by using the ridiculous example of the “telephone game.” Notice carefully that he puts no scholarly reference on that page regarding how Jewish education and oral tradition worked. There’s plenty out there on the topic, but Bart somehow forgot to reference any at the very point where it should appear. Fascinating.
    As someone who has studied just how Jewish oral tradition worked, I know for a fact that it is historically dishonest to even posit the idea that Jewish oral tradition was in any way similar to some “telephone game” where people pass around a barely understood phrase from the front of a room to the back, and when it gets back to the first person the message is totally different. Nonsense. Pure and utter nonsense. Jewish oral tradition did NOT work like that. How do we know? Because we have historical records on it, yet Bart references none of them. Why? Unlike Bart, I will give you credible sources to check on how Jewish oral tradition worked: Educational Ideals in the Ancient World by William Barclay and Memory and Manuscript:Oral Tradition and Written Transmission in Rabbinic Judaism and Early Christianity by Birger Gerhardsson.
    A simple and good example of how Jewish oral tradition worked, and how it preserved accurate oral traditions, is in the example of music memorization. We can remember practically verbatim songs that are over 20 years old. How? Because the songs were repeatedly played on the radio, or we listened to them repeatedly. Repetition, or learning by repetition (also known as Mishnah), is how the Jews did oral tradition. So with the use of repetition, we can indeed remember oral traditions and pass them along accurately, despite the false claims of people like Bart Ehrman who curiously do not engage the scholarly literature on the subject in their books.
    That is why I recommend that people get their own scholarship and research for themselves. Because if you don’t, when the likes of Bart Ehrman fall because he’s been found to be a liar or deceiver, then you have no leg to stand on. When he falls, you must fall automatically. But if you have your own scholarship, you can stand even when people like Bart, or Norman Geisler, fall due to questionable or unscholarly claims. I pray we learn and apply this valuable lesson.
    I will be doing a series refuting the claims of Bart Ehrman on YouTube as the “Christian Road Warrior,” so stay tuned for that and get informed. Bart’s claims are not as “scholarly” as they seem, as I will demonstrate in that series. God bless and keep the faith!

  • Bart’s claims about women are simply ignorant and unfounded. Jesus has women part of His group of disciples. The first to give the message of the resurrection were women.
    While some people have misinterpreted passages like 1 Corinthians 14:32 and 1 Timothy 2:11, 12 to oppress women. But a careful study of the Greek of the passages, and the contexts of each, will show that these cannot be used to oppress women. So Bart is absolutely wrong there. Bad hermeneutics will always lead to bad interpretation.
    Also, I forgot to add the URL for Ben’s review and refutation of Bart’s book:

  • Seriously!!! How can anyone still believe after listening to Ph.d, Master of Divinity, Biblical scholar Bart Ehrman that the Bible is the word of God? He explains before printing presses there were people called Scribes that copied the new testament for about a 1,500 years by hand and would make many mistakes or intentional tamper with the manuscripts that changed the text and meaning.
    There is about 5,600 New Testament ancient manuscripts left and that there are more differences between the manuscripts than words of the NT, that’s what proves the Bible is not the word of God!
    And to the people who are trying refute what Ph.d, Master of Divinity(M.Div), Biblical scholar, BartEhrman has to say are grasping at straws.
    After reading Ehrman’s is like when you first hear there is no Santa Clause, some kids handle it well and others don’t!