A conversation with Bart Ehrman

Q&A | The author of <em>How Jesus Became God</em> talks about his critics and how he stopped believing in a God who intervenes and helps people
by Warren Cole Smith
Posted 1/09/15, 02:23 pm

Bart Ehrman claims to have had a born-again experience when he was a teenager, and from there he attended Moody Bible Institute and Wheaton College on his way to becoming a Baptist pastor. But he turned his back on Christianity after he joined the faculty of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and has since written several books that attempt to undermine basic Christian doctrines. His latest book, How Jesus Became God, claims the historical Jesus did not claim to be God. I had this conversation with him last year at his office in Chapel Hill.

A central tenet of your book is the assertion that Jesus Himself did not claim to be God. Is that a fair assessment? Absolutely. It’s completely central to the argument of the book. The first people to argue this were living at the end of the 18th century. The idea is that even though in the Gospel of John Jesus definitely calls himself God, He doesn’t say, “I am God.” He says, “I and the Father are one.” He says, “Before Abraham was, I am.” He says, “If you’ve seen me, you’ve seen the Father.”

Jesus makes exalted claims about himself in the Gospel of John. But what scholars have long noted is that he does not make these claims about himself in the earlier Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. It has long been recognized by scholars that if Jesus actually had called himself God, and it was known that he called Himself God, that it’s virtually beyond belief that the early Gospel writers didn’t mention this. It would be the most important thing to say about him, but it’s not there. There are other reasons that are given in my book, but it is a fairly standard, common view among scholars that Jesus himself didn’t call himself God. 

Evangelical scholars, at least, say that there are at least 80 references in all four of the Gospels to Jesus calling Himself either God or the Son of Man or some other phrase that has connotations of divinity or even actual assertions of divinity. You disagree with that? Just not me. Apart from evangelical Christians, you don’t find this view represented very much in scholarship. Evangelical Christians of course think Jesus is God and therefore he must have called himself God, but if you look at the synoptic Gospels what Jesus teaches about is the coming kingdom of God and that people need to prepare for this coming kingdom by repenting and living lives that are worthy of the kingdom. It’s whether the historical Jesus himself called himself God.

What are the new arguments in this book that should cause us to reconsider the church’s historical understanding of who Jesus was? It depends what you mean by new. I’ll make two points. One is that when a scholar writes a book for a general audience, it’s not in order to promote brand new views. Almost always it’s in order to explain to a general audience what it is scholars are saying, and that’s the case in this book. I’m explaining what scholars say. There are things in this book that I came to realize that I’d never thought before, so that’s all to the good. There are half a dozen things that I completely changed my mind about in doing this book, but there’s nothing here that is radically turning scholarship on its head because it’s not a book written for scholars.

If I were to write a book for scholars, it would be a very different book. For a general reader there’s a lot of stuff here that’s new, including the one you started out with: Jesus probably didn’t call himself God, and yet the authors of the New Testament do think he was God. Why is it that that happened? Why do his followers say he’s God when he didn’t say so himself?

Bart, your publishers did something rather unusual, at least in the world of publishing, which is to commission a rebuttal book to your book. Dr. Craig Evans and others wrote a book called How God Became Jesus to counter your book, How Jesus Became God (see “Raining on Bart Ehrman’s Easter parade”). Have you read their book, what do you think about that book, and were you put off in any way by your publisher’s decision to publish those two books simultaneously? Roughly speaking, my publisher did it, but they’re actually two different publishers. It was Zondervan that published How God Became Jesus, and my publisher is HarperOne. They’re both owned by the same company. The Zondervan people approached my publisher and asked if we would agree to share my manuscript with these five evangelical Christian authors so that they could respond to it and we thought, “Sure, that’s a great idea.” The whole point is to get people talking about important issues and to have a response book done right off the bat is good for everybody. 

They’re five good scholars, smart people with whom I disagree. The thing about their book that’s surprising is that it’s not really about how God became Jesus. They never take on the question of how God became Jesus. They picked a title just so it would mirror my title. It’s really too bad, because their entire book really is poking holes in my argument, which is fine, absolutely fine, and we should have those discussions. 

What I think is disappointing is they never explain how God became Jesus. I think if they had done that, then it would be possible to compare the two books and see which one has the more plausible explanation, but they in fact don’t provide an explanation. 

Isn’t that the alternative view, that Jesus, that God the Father, and the Holy Spirit are one? That the Trinity is a settled doctrine of the church? That may be their view, although they never say it’s their view. I don’t think it is their view. I don’t think any of the five think that Jesus went around declaring the doctrine of the Trinity. 

It’s true that the word “Trinity” is not in Scripture, but ... None of them thinks that Jesus was teaching his disciples that there are three persons in the Godhead, he and the Holy Spirit and the Father, and that the three are one. None of these five authors thinks that Jesus was saying that, which means they don’t think that a fourth century understanding of the Trinity was there at the beginning. If it’s not there in the beginning, how did it come to be? That’s the question. Unless you’ve got a plausible scenario for it happening, then there’s nothing to compare my book to.

With respect, I’ve corresponded with some of those scholars, and I think that they would say that that’s what Jesus was teaching. Why don’t they say that in the book?

When He said things like “I and the Father are one,” that is precisely what Jesus was teaching. No.

Jesus was affirming that He was God. Michael Bird is the one who wrote the article on that. If you actually look at his language, it’s very slippery indeed. What he says is that Jesus understood himself to be a representation of God on Earth. That’s fine. That’s what the prophets of the Old Testament thought as well. The prophet Isaiah thought he was representing God on Earth. He was speaking God’s voice. It didn’t make him God. 

Michael Bird doesn’t go further than that. Michael Bird doesn’t say Jesus actually said these things in the Gospel of John. There’s a reason he doesn’t say that; it’s because scholars don’t think he said that. If you look in their book for an alternative explanation such as the one you laid out—you laid out one that’s very clear and straightforward—you won’t find that in their book. 

Let me ask you a little bit about this assertion that you’ve made now several times that

“scholars don’t believe that.” My rebuttal has been, evangelical scholars in academics have a different view. You tend to be dismissive of evangelical scholars.
No, I just said that those five scholars actually don’t agree with the view that you laid out that Jesus was talking about the Trinity during his lifetime. If they really think that Jesus went around saying "I and the Father are one," or, "Before Abraham was, I am," why don’t they ever say that’s what they think in their book?

So you’re saying they do not believe in the Trinity, or are you just saying they didn’t state it explicitly in their book? These five authors believe in the Trinity, but they don’t believe that the Trinity was part of Jesus’ teaching. If they do think it was part of Jesus’ teaching, that would be a remarkable thing and they could say that in their book and then we’d have something to talk about, but they don’t say that. 

Let me leave that point aside for a minute, because I think that it’s beginning to feel like that’s an agree-to-disagree kind of a point. Do you think they really think that Jesus taught the Trinity? 

Some of them, the ones that I corresponded with, believe that Jesus affirmed his divinity multiple times, not just in the Gospel of John, and that, over time, we have come to understand those statements by Jesus claiming to be divine as instrumental, foundational passages to support the doctrine of the Trinity. If you put it like that, that is what they think.

And I think that that’s what they believe. But, you know, it would have been nice if they showed how it happened. How do you get from these implications of divinity in Jesus’ teachings to the doctrine of the Trinity? It’s not an obvious progression. It could have gone other directions. What is the narrative behind it?

I understand that it wasn’t obvious, and that was one of the reasons why we had the great councils of the church in the third and fourth century. Absolutely.

And it culminated in the 19th century. But the opposite of that is not that Jesus wasn’t God. No, no, of course not. No, I’m not saying that. What I’m saying is they wrote a book on how God became Jesus and they don’t explain how the development happened. You can take potshots at everything I’ve said, but that doesn’t explain how the development happened. 

So anyone, for example, that would believe that the statements of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, the statements in which Jesus claims to be divine, any scholar that would assert that you would say is not a serious scholar? No, I would not say that. I never have said that.

What would you say? I would disagree with them. 

You would say that they would be serious scholars but are dead wrong on this not incidental but vital fundamental point? Yes.

You’ve debated lots of people over the years. Of all the evangelical scholars or theistic scholars that you debated and apologists—and some of them are pop-apologists—which are the ones that have been the most fun for you, the ones that you respect the most, the ones that caused you to say, maybe I hadn’t thought that through quite as much as I should have? When I debate Craig Evans, it’s not like he sits back and says, “I hadn’t thought of that before.” We’re scholars, so of course we know what the other side is. I’ll tell you, the people that I haven’t really enjoyed debating are the very conservative, what I would call fundamentalist, apologists who tend not to be generous as thinkers and tend not to know scholarship but are really just out for blood. 

When I debate someone like Craig Evans, we have hearty disagreements. We fundamentally disagree on points, but there’s nothing stopping us from sitting around and talking and sharing stories and enjoying each other’s company, so that’s absolutely great. 

Books have been written on this next topic that I’m about to raise, but since you mentioned Craig Evans, and since we’ve been talking about the rebuttal book, he took you to task pretty hard on your treatment of the Resurrection. You certainly raise doubt that Jesus was even buried. You raise doubt about the historical authenticity of Joseph of Arimathea. You’re saying, do I really think that somebody made up the story of Joseph of Arimathea? 

Yes. Before I say that the answer is yes, that is what I think, I want you to agree with me that we know that Christians were making up stories about Jesus. The question is not whether a Christian would do that or not. The question is, this an instance of that or not.

People make up stories about Jesus today. Absolutely.

So I can certainly agree that, yes, it’s possible that people were making up stories about Jesus in the fourth century as well. But I guess I would ask, just because somebody made up a story about Jesus doesn’t mean that the church at any time accepted those made-up stories about Jesus as canonical. OK. So, about that, what I would say is that the church didn’t finally didn’t decide on the canon of Scripture until the end of the fourth century and even beyond that. By that time, they had no grounds for knowing whether the stories in these books they accepted were historical or not. They weren’t historical critics. They didn’t have the kinds of historical resources that we have today. And so, the fact that it’s in the Bible doesn’t in itself mean that it really happened.

An evangelical scholar would say that the canonization of the books in the Bible in the fourth century as near as I know you rightly say, it was not a picking and choosing from among hundreds or more possibilities, but it was simply a codification of what was widely accepted to be the canonical books. There was, in fact, controversy—at least, this is what evangelical scholars assert, which you may or may not agree with. Evangelical scholars assert that there was controversy on only a very, very small number of books, that it was clear that the overwhelming majority of those stories that were concocted about Jesus should never have been in the canon and there were only one or two or three, maybe a half a dozen at most. First of all, am I accurately representing the evangelical position as you understand it as a former evangelical? Secondly, are you saying that that position is incorrect? I would say it’s correct about the Gospels. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were, by the end of the second century within proto-orthodox circles were accepted as the four Gospels. That’s absolutely right. The first time anybody mentions Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John as the four Gospels, the first time that happens is in the writings of Irenaeus in the year 180, so about a hundred years after these books were written. Irenaeus, living in the year 180, had no way of knowing whether the story of Joseph of Arimathea was historical or not. It was a story found in the books that he accepted as canonical, but he wasn’t a historical scholar trying to engage in historical scholarship.

I don’t know if you were raised in an evangelical environment. No, I wasn’t.

But you were—you became an evangelical. You went to Wheaton College. Before that I went to Moody Bible Institute.

Right. Talk a little about that. When I was in high school, I had a born-again experience. I was raised Episcopalian. My family was religious, but we were not evangelical. When I had this born-again experience in high school, I became an evangelical. After high school I went to Moody Bible Institute because I wanted to study the Bible and theology and was a very conservative evangelical. By most standards, I would have been a fundamentalist. After that, I went to Wheaton College and did a degree in English. … But I took Greek at Wheaton, and that’s when I got into studying the Greek New Testament.

From Wheaton you went off to Princeton and studied under Bruce Metzger, which I guess is about as close to an evangelical as they have at Princeton? There was another biblical scholar there … who was even more conservative, and I gravitated toward those two. I went to Princeton precisely to study with Metzger. Metzger was the leading scholar of Greek manuscripts in the country, arguably in the world, and so I wanted to study with him. Then I ended up staying for my Ph.D. there. I was his final Ph.D. student.

His final before he retired? Yeah, before he retired. 

Were you still a believer? Would you consider yourself a Christian believer whenever you graduated from Princeton with a Ph.D.? Absolutely. Yeah. I was the pastor of the Princeton Baptist Church for a year during my Ph.D. When I moved to Chapel Hill, where I am now—I moved here in 1988—I was still a Christian. I had gone back to the Episcopal Church at that time. I still considered myself a Christian. 

What happened? Both narratively, chronologically, but what was happening intellectually and spiritually, as well? What ended up leading me away from the faith was unrelated to my scholarship. It was dealing with the problem of suffering in the world and why there could be so much pain and misery if God is active in the world, he’s over the world, he’s sovereign over the world. Of course, I knew what all the answers were. I knew what people said about it. I knew what biblical scholars said, what theologians and apologists and philosophers—I read tons of stuff on it. I finally just got to a point where I didn’t believe it anymore. 

When was this? How old were you, and what year was this? I don’t remember exactly what year it was. This is 2014. I think it was probably 15 or 17 years ago when that happened. 

This was, you said, about 15, 16, 17 years ago whenever you had this crisis of faith. Was there anything personal in your life that facilitated the crisis? You talk about suffering. Were you just looking out at the world and seeing a world full of suffering, or were you experiencing that personally? Of course, we all suffer. There are things that happen to all of us, but I didn’t have any extreme forms of suffering that made me think, you know, to be angry at God or anything like that. It wasn’t like that. It was seeing that every five seconds a child starves to death in this world. Or a tsunami hits and 300,000 people get killed. I just got to a point where I thought, I just don’t believe in a God who intervenes and helps people.

So the classical definition of evil as not being the substantive thing, but the absence of the good of God, you ultimately found that explanation to be inadequate? I never accepted that explanation when I was a Christian. That’s what St. Augustine argued.

I will say, Bart, that I’ve done a little bit of research into your background, and there are some, I don’t want to say conflicting, but there are several views of how you became an atheist and some of them do involve some personal stories about going through a divorce, for example, and not finding compassion. Really?

Yeah, within a particular church. The divorce absolutely had nothing to do with it. I had a very amicable divorce; I still get along very well with my ex-wife. No, none of that. It’s because children are starving to death in this world and people are dying for all sorts of crazy reasons. Three hundred people die every hour because of malaria. 

As a Christian, I always thought, God answers my prayer. God intervenes for me and helps me out. But if he helps me out, why isn’t he helping out all these children? In the time we’ve been doing this interview there were 70 children who died of starvation. It’s nice that God answers my prayer, but what about their prayers? I just came to a point I didn’t believe it anymore.

Again, the argument that evil and the tragedy that happens in the world is not at the hands of God, but rather a consequence of man’s rebellion against God, you just don’t buy that argument? I don’t think it’s the consequence of God because I don’t believe in God. I don’t think that God was causing the suffering. My question was, if it’s true that God is a God who intervenes, he intervened for the Exodus, he intervened for the salvation of Christ, he intervened for the apostles, he does miracles, he helps people, he answers prayers; if that’s true, why is it that it doesn’t seem to be true?

An obvious answer to that would be that just because God intervenes once doesn’t mean He’s obligated at Bart Ehrman’s behest to intervene everywhere. The problem is, he does fine by me. I have a great life. That’s what I’m saying. It’s rather funny that people think there’s something in my life. My life is fantastic. That’s not the problem. The problem is that all these other people have such crummy lives. 

You have a great life. I’ve got to ask you though, Bart Ehrman, do you have moments lying in bed at 3 in the morning where you wake up and say, what if I’m wrong? I don’t anymore. I used to. I think everybody should have. I don’t wake up like in a cold sweat. I don’t have that kind of experience. I constantly ask myself if I continue to think that I’m right, and I think that’s something that everybody ought to ask. 

What do you think happens to people when they die? I think we cease to exist. 

Bart, when you were a pastor did you ever preach any sermons? Preached every week. It was on the radio, and Bruce Metzger used to listen to my sermons every Sunday morning. 

What about funerals? Did you ever preach at funerals? I did do funerals. Yes. 

You stood over the grave of a Christian believer, and I’m sure you said something along the lines of, “Friends, we mourn with those who mourn, but this is not the end. The Christ in us, the hope of glory, we will meet again some day.” Yes. 

That, I’m sure, gave great comfort and solace to the people to whom you were preaching. When Bart Ehrman dies and we’re standing over your grave, what do you want whoever has been charged with preaching your funeral to say? I want them to say, “You know, Bart had a great life, and he lived it to the fullest and he was really concerned about helping others, and we should do the same thing.”

Listen to Warren Cole Smith’s conversation with Bart Ehrman on Listening In: 

Warren Cole Smith

Warren is vice president of mission advancement for The Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview and the host of WORLD Radio’s Listening In. Follow Warren on Twitter @WarrenColeSmith.

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