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Losing Faith: How Scholarship Affects Scholars

2 Who Did and 2 Who Didnít

Several media stories recently reported that Bart Ehrman, a leading expert on the apocryphal gospels and one of BASís most popular lecturers, had lost his faith as a result of his scholarly research. This raised a question for us that is not often talked about, but seemed well worth a discussion: What effect does scholarship have on faith? We asked Bart to join three other scholars to talk about this: James F. Strange, a leading archaeologist and Baptist minister; Lawrence H. Schiffman, a prominent Dead Sea Scroll scholar and Orthodox Jew; and William G. Dever, one of Americaís best-known and most widely quoted archaeologists, who had been an evangelical preacher, then lost his faith, then became a Reform Jew and now says heís a non-believer. The discussion took place in the offices of the Biblical Archaeology Society on November 19, 2006, and was moderated by BAR editor Hershel Shanks.

Hershel Shanks: Bart, how did your scholarship affect your faith?

Bart Ehrman: First, I lost my fundamentalist faith because of my scholarship. Like Bill Dever, I have a fundamentalist background. I had a very high view of Scripture as the inerrant word of God, no mistakes of any kind—geographical or historical. No contradictions. Inviolate.

My scholarship early on as a graduate student showed me that in fact these views about the Bible were wrong. I started finding contradictions and finding other discrepancies and started finding problems with the Bible. What that ended up doing for me was showing me that the basis of my faith, which at that time was the Bible, was problematic. So I shifted from being an evangelical Christian to becoming a fairly mainline liberal Protestant Christian.

What ended up making me lose my faith was kind of related to scholarship: When I was at Rutgers University, I taught a course on the problem of suffering in Biblical traditions, where I dealt with issues of theodicy throughout different Biblical books, both Hebrew Bible and the New Testament—

Shanks: What is theodicy?

Ehrman: Theodicy is the question of how God can be righteous, given the amount of suffering in the world. The issue as itís usually put today is that if God is all-powerful and is able to prevent suffering, and is all-loving so that he wants to prevent suffering, why is there suffering? This problem isnít ever expressed that way in the Bible, but Biblical authors do deal with the problem by asking: Why does the people of God suffer? In teaching this course, the thing that struck me is just how different the answers are. Depending on what part of Job you read, you get one set of answers. If you read the Prophets, you get a different set of answers. If you read apocalyptic literature, you get still a different set of answers.

This made me think more deeply about my own understanding of why thereís suffering in the world. Finally, because I became dissatisfied with all the conventional answers, I decided that I couldnít believe in a God who was in any way intervening in this world, given the state of things. So thatís why I ended up losing my faith.

Shanks: I want to separate a couple of issues. You talked about how you, as a young person, believed in the inerrancy of the Bible, that every word was accurate and divine. I really want to separate that from what weíre talking about.

Is it fair to say that no one here believes in the inerrancy of the Biblical text?

James Strange: I think so. Yeah.

Shanks: Larry?

Lawrence Schiffman: Yeah, itís fair. Inerrancy assumes a kind of literalism never adopted in Jewish tradition.

Shanks: Okay. Thatís a different question from what I want to discuss. I want to discuss the second issue: What your scholarship has done to your faith. Faith, I take it, is not a rational thing that we arrive at, not an argument that we win. It comes from another source, and weíve just heard what his scholarship has done to Bartís faith.

Jim, youíre a Baptist minister. Has your scholarship, your excavations and your archaeology deepened your faith? Or has it caused you to question it? Are you still a Baptist minister?

Strange: Yeah, Iím still a Baptist minister. I donít have a pulpit. The only thing I do every now and then is a wedding for someoneóor a funeral. Maybe now itís more funerals. [Laughs] I bury more than I marry.

But to answer you more directly, I just donít see the connection. My faith is not based upon anything like a propositional argument. When I indulge myself in all this scientific research and explication, Iím not doing anything about faith.

Shanks: What is your faith based on?

Strange: My faith is based on my own experienceóa good old Protestant principle.

William Dever: Very Protestant.

Schiffman: Itís a form of existentialism.

Strange: Yes, it is. I love the existentialist philosophers. I love to read them, not because theyíre giving me any testable facts. Itís because itís like reading a really good poet. It does something to you that propositional truth never does.

Shanks: What do you mean by propositional truth?

Strange: Propositional truth is like: There is a loving God that intervenes upon the earth. Thatís a proposition. Itís testable or itís not. If itís not testable, then you canít falsify it; you canít know if itís true or not. If it really is testable, then the way you test it is to start checking out a list of experiences people haveóand suffering is a prime one human beings have in common. So you end up saying, Iíve tested the hypothesis and it is now wanting. Suffering tends to disconfirm the hypothesis.

Shanks: You say your faith is not based on this proposition?

Strange: Thatís correct.

Shanks: What is it based on?

Strange: Based on my own experience with God. For a lot of people, this makes me sort of a mystic in a cave or something. But I think itís eminently practical and out there. I think that thereís as much reason to see the face of God in someone like William Dever.

Dever: Hold on.


Shanks: Does this God of yours have any attributes?

Strange: I suppose so, but Iím not really much interested. If Iím passionately in love, I hardly ever want to discuss the attributes of the person Iím in love with. Or if I do, I wind up saying superfluous things for everybody listening. ďSheís wonderful.Ē ďCan you give me some more information?Ē ďYeah, sheís really wonderful.Ē [Laughs] When youíre in this state, you donít utter propositions.

Shanks: Would you say that your scholarship, then, has had really no effect on your faith?

Strange: Virtually none. I mean I have a wonderful intellectual time with my scholarship. I get the same existentialist thrill out of touching the dirt when Iím excavating as I do holding my wifeís hand.

Shanks: You love the earth that youíre excavating really?

Strange: Yes.

Shanks: Does that have anything to do with your faith?

Strange: It has something to do with the center of my being. But I donít know how to express that like a philosopher. I have a B.A. in philosophy, which doesnít make me much of a philosopher. I grew up in east Texas, where the choices were you believed in the Bible literally or you didnít believe in the Bible literally. That was it. I didnít. So itís my own experience with God that tipped me over on the other side. My best analogy is falling in love.

Shanks: Bart, do you have any reaction to what he says?

Ehrman: Yeah, I do. It seems to me that Christianity—Christian faith—has always been grounded in certain historical claims, for example, about Jesus. One thing that scholarship did for me: It led me to question historical claims that Christians have made about Jesus.

Shanks: What historical claims?

Ehrman: For example, that he was raised from the dead. Thatís a historical claim. I mean either he was raised from the dead or he rotted in his grave. The kind of Christianity I was in believed in an active physical resurrection of Jesus. That was part of what it meant to be Christian. You had to believe that.

Shanks: Do you believe it, Jim?

Strange: I donít believe that, but, yeah, I believe in something that means that Christ is alive, and our explanation of that is that there was a resurrection.

I think Iím more or less untouched by the sort of literalist interpretation [Bart is talking about]; resurrection is sort of a metaphor.

Ehrman: If Jesus hadnít been crucified, if he grew up to be an old man and died and was buried in a family plot outside of Nazareth, then for me, when I was a Christian, that wouldíve destroyed my faith.

In other words, the faith is rooted in certain historical claims. As historical claims, they can be shown as either probable or improbable. And I got to a point where the historical claims about Jesus seemed implausible, especially the resurrection. Not the crucifixion—I think Jesus was crucified like a lot of other people were crucified, and I think that, like a lot of other people, he stayed dead. And so, for me, that had a damaging impact on my faith.

Shanks: Do you feel a necessity to subscribe to the historical claims of Christianity, Jim?

Strange: In some way I do because in the earliest Christian language there are some of these historical claims. Iím not in any position to be able to check those claims or even decide on their plausibility. I guess I just donít worry about it.

Shanks: Well, Larry, I take it that you, as an Orthodox Jew, donít believe those historical claims about Jesus.

Schiffman: No. One of the principles of the Jewish faith is not believing in Jesus. [Laughter] But, like Bart, I of course believe that he lived, preached and was crucified by the Romans.

From a Jewish point of view, these kinds of problems arenít problems. First of all, the Bible was never taken literally in Judaism. It doesnít mean that itís not historical, but it is not taken literally in the Protestant sense. Itís not an issue in Judaism. Admittedly there is a literalist strain in a minority of medieval Jewish thinkers and a minority—maybe a growing minority—in modern Judaism, but itís not classical Judaism. The Talmud doesnít take the Bible literally in the Protestant sense.

Jimís approach of taking a kind of experiential approach to the whole thing is one that is much more primary in Judaism.

I get into debates about these historical types of issues all the time, especially within the Orthodox community. I donít want to say they arenít importantóthey are important. We sit around and debate these kinds of questions all day.

I heard a recent lecture by a rabbi who is becoming a medical doctor. He talked about the problem of creation. And he said, well, evolution is obviously true. What do I do about it if evolution is obviously true? He said that we learn from Nachmanides that nothing in the Bible about creation is intended literally. Whatís important to me is that I have the experience of God as the creator.

Letís take the problem of evil. Somehow or another, Jews have learned throughout their history the bad news that we canít explain it. We talk about it all the time. We talk about the debate in Job and the various approaches explored there. We see the continuation of these debates in Midrash. But we know that we canít explain evil, especially after the Holocaust. Any person who says that he can give an explanation for the Holocaust is crazy. So the bottom line is that we all go along living with the fact that this horrible thing happened and we canít explain it. Judaism doesnít claim that the individual will get all the answers to everything.

In one of Billís books, he discusses the historicity of the Exodus, and he throws up his hands. From the Jewish viewpoint everyone says it happened; itís part of our past, part of our history. Somehow or other, it happened. I happen to believe there was some kind of Exodus. But the point Iím making is that the framing of the question, from the Jewish point of view, is very different.

Dever: Which is why I feel comfortable in Judaism. Thatís where Iíve arrived—by a long and tortuous path.

Shanks: Tell us a little about your long and tortuous path, Bill.

Dever: Well, my father was a fire-breathing fundamentalist. I grew up hearing him preach in tent meetings in the hills of eastern Kentucky and Tennessee. He had a bigger voice than I do. I was ordained a minister at 17, put myself through undergraduate school and on through divinity school, through Harvard, then a congregation. I have 13 yearsí experience as a parish minister and two theological degrees. For me, it was this typical Protestant conundrum: Itís all true or none of it is true. My sainted mother once said to me, If I canít believe that the whale swallowed Jonah, I canít believe any of it.

When I was writing a masterís thesis on the revival of Old Testament theology, I got all excited because at last modern critical scholarship was going to prove the Bible true after all. I discovered the works of George Ernest Wright [a professor at Harvard] and his little book God Who Acts (London: SCM Press Ltd., 1960), a classic of the neo-orthodox movement. I still remember to this day the quotation that sort of turned my life around. ďIn Biblical faith,Ē Ernest said, ďeverything depends upon whether the original events actually happened.Ē And I thought they had, so I went to Harvard to study Old Testament theology with Ernest. I got disabused of that in the first semester, so I shifted to archaeology. The rest is history.

Then, of course, a nice Christian boy like me graduates, and the day after graduation he goes to Israel for a day and stays 12 years. I became the director of archaeology at the Jerusalem branch of Hebrew Union College, a Reform Jewish seminary. I worked on Sunday, my staff was all Jewish; I more or less forgot my Christian background, but I never forgot Ernestís statement.

Then, about 15 years ago, in my archaeological work I began to write about ancient Israel. Originally I wrote to frustrate the Biblical minimalists; then I became one of them, more or less. The call of Abraham, the Promise of the Land, the migration to Canaan, the descent into Egypt, the Exodus, Moses and monotheism, the Law at Sinai, divine kingshipóarchaeology throws all of these into great doubt. My long experience in Israel and my growing uncertainty about the historicity of the Bible meant that was the end for me.

Shanks: Well, then your scholarship did destroy your faith?

Dever: Absolutely. Next year will be the 50th anniversary of my first trip to Israel. I worked there for 49 years and let me tell you something: Seeing Judaism and Christianity and, God help us, Islam up close and personal does not help.

Living in the Holy Land, I became extremely cynical about religion. I began to think, more or less, maybe like all of you, that I had no talent for religion, that faith might be a matter of temperament as well as training. I never had a pious bone in my body. And I realized I was never really a believer, but it just took me 40 years to figure out that it was no longer meaningful. Thatís when I converted to Judaism. [Laughs] I did it precisely because you donít have to be religious to be a Jew. And Iím perfectly comfortable where I am.

Shanks: How do you respond to that, Larry? ďYou donít have to be religious to be a JewĒ?

Dever: Thatís true of most Israelis.

Schiffman: Yes, thatís a fact. A Jew remains part of the Jewish people whatever he or she believes or practices. But in order to be a Jew, you have to have some concept that you believe in Judaism. You have a received tradition from other people—at least they believed they received the revelation.

Dever: Absolutely.

Schiffman: Youíve got to decide: Do I believe there is a God? Do I believe that God communicated some kind of way of life to someone that became Judaism?

Dever: I think Judaism is about practices rather than a correct theology.

Strange: I think precisely that [about Judaism]. Christian tradition, on the other hand, made a mistake because we intellectualized it so much that Christian experience got submerged. Theology was bereft of any kind of experience.

Schiffman: Judaism is different because much of the act of being a traditional Jew is intellectualizing. Study becomes a form of worship.

Strange: Yes, it does precisely.

Schiffman: Study is worship. So a person who claims not to be a believer may be doing worship in some form. You could study the whole Talmud and say, I donít believe anything.

But I think modern Judaism goes too far with the notion that you donít have to believe anything to be Jewish. You donít in the sense that youíre part of the community even if you donít believe. But the question is, doesnít Judaism really have in mind that a person will have certain types of faith commitments that are then acted out in certain ways?

Shanks: Larry, do you believe in God?

Schiffman: Yes.

Shanks: Whatís the God you believe in?

Schiffman: I believe in a personal God, but Iím conditioned by the philosophical approach of Maimonides. Does that personal God interfere in the individualís life or not? How would I get close to that personal God? Can I have a mystical experience? These are all debates that Jews have carried on for millennia. So†I donít have to have the answer to everyoneís questions. I can say thereís a lot that I donít know.

An Orthodox Jew can believe whatever he wants and be part of the community, but Orthodox Judaism assumes that a person does believe that there really is a God. There is a force that cannot physically be accounted for. There is a force, even if we donít know how to present what it is in words. Somehow or other God reveals himself or his will to humanity. This revelation and its experience constitute in some mystical way, if not in a physical way, the Torah, the Prophets, the Writings. Otherwise, you could be a Jew, no question, but letís face it, an Orthodox Jew, some way or another, believes that. How you account for that, with the many philosophical issues, theological issues, and scholarly issues and your own perceived experience, I think thatís what Jewish theology and philosophy are all about. Obviously, I donít have all the answers.

Shanks: How do you react to that, Bart?

Ehrman: Itís very interesting, because two of us have remained within our religious traditions and two of us have left our religious traditions. Bill and I have both left our original traditions. But thereís a difference between Bill and me. Bill adopted another tradition. It seems to me that, as somebody who has left his tradition, I have to decide if Iím going to believe something and what it is Iím going to believe. And even if that isnít expressed propositionally, there still have to be reasons. Once one leaves oneís tradition, it isnít an automatic move for me to go from Christianity to Judaism. There are ≠hundreds of religions in the world. Why would I choose one over the other?

Dever: Well, I lived and worked so long in Israel, all my friends were Jews, I was remarrying a Jewish woman; it was obvious to me thatís where I should go. I ended up feeling very comfortable. I will never forget the reaction of Avraham Biran, who was my successor at HUC [Hebrew Union College], when he got the news that I converted. He said ďNo-o-o, Dever, I was born a Jew; I didnít have a choice. But you had a choice!Ē[Laughter]

But I want to make it very clear. Iím not an atheist. Iím an agnostic. I donít know but Iím willing to learn. Right now the Christian tradition does nothing for me and the Orthodox Jewish tradition does little for me. In my own experience, I find this God so distant that it doesnít make any practical difference. And, for me, I guess the final straw probably was the death of my son five years ago. If I had believed in God, I would have been very angry, but I didnít and I survived.

As the Yiddish expression says: ďIf God lived on earth, people would break his windows.Ē Thatís been my experience.

Strange: When my eldest daughter was born with a heart defect, I got mad as hell at God. And I told him so. But I didnít say, Okay from now on Iím not going to believe in you.

Shanks: Let me ask the two believers: Is one religion truer than another? Is your religion truer than another?

Strange: Weíll never know that.

Schiffman: I donít believe in pluralism. I believe in toleration and mutual respect. But I do believe that certain things are ultimately true or untrue. I believe that my religion is more correct than some other peopleís religion. But Iím the first to admit that many other peopleís religions make them better people and that many things taught in their religions are things that I agree with. We share a lot in common.

A guy came to interview me recently for some TV program about Adam and Eve. So I said that the story of Adam and Eve is like a microcosm of human relations between a man and a woman, about people and God, and about good and evil. After about five minutes, the guy turns off the recorder and says ďI donít understand. Everybody else I interviewed is talking aboutóWhere is Eden? Was there really one human being in the beginning?Ē I said that is not what this is about. There are major challenges to the Bible if you take it literally, but that is not what matters. That isnít what it means to be a believing Jew.

Maybe Iím compartmentalizing. Maybe Iím being apologetic. I donít know. But the bottom line to me is not only that my faith has not been weakened but that it has been strengthened by my scholarship.

Shanks: Bart, it sounds to me as if all these people kind of agree with you that the historical questions youíre raising about the Bible are of very doubtful veracity, but it hasnít destroyed their faith. Theyíre talking about faith that isnít grounded in historical propositions.

Ehrman: Yes, but even Larry thinks that at the end of the day you have to believe in God. And then your original question about ďWhat kind of attributes does God have?Ē matters. Just believing in God is for me an amorphous idea. I think belief has content. Without content itís simply some kind of feeling that you have inside. I think that faith has to have substance. But once you start putting some substance onto that, you get into trouble. Faith in the Judeo-Christian tradition has a God who intervenes. Thatís what the Exodus event is, thatís what the crucifixion is: itís a God who intervenes, and when I look around this world, I donít see a God who intervenes.

Dever: Precisely my experience.

Strange: What I canít help but notice is that two people look at precisely the same event and one sees God intervening and the other does not. Apparently the one who has seen God is either fooling himself or there is something genuinely happening thatís going on. Bill doesnít see a God where Iím seeing God.

Dever: Iím glad you do. I just donít need to do that. Religion doesnít do anything for me and it hasnít for a long time, and Iíve decided I donít need its excess baggage.

Ehrman: I have a different view. I would actually like to be a believer.

Dever: I would too. I wish it were true. I really do.

Schiffman: I see the whole thing as a lifelong quest. Itís not that either a person believes or doesnít believe. The life experiences of people are very difficult and very complex, and believing in God is itself a challenge. Itís not about whether I know the Exodus happened or didnít happen. It has to do with understanding the difficult world that weíre in. Faith is a process.

Dever: A dynamic.

Schiffman: It is a dynamic. A person goes through many experiences.

Strange: Itís certainly not just a set of beliefs.

Dever: Or a warm fuzzy feeling. If thatís all it is, Iím just not interested.

Schiffman: In Judaism there is actually a commandment to believe. What does that mean, a command to believe? Well, it wouldnít be a commandment if it were so easy. There has to be a struggle that a human being goes through in this complex world, in which we donít really know whatís going on. Thatís why the believer canít say of the non-believer, ďOh this guy is some kind of a fool; youíre a heretic, an infidel.Ē No, youíre a person who has certain experiences. And you react in a certain way to those experiences.

Ehrman: I think whatís happened in the case of both Larry and Jim is that they have a tradition that they inherited. Thatís the way they were born and raised. The experiences theyíve had they interpreted in light of that background. When I interpret my experiences, I donít have that background anymore because Iíve left the kind of propositional faith that I used to have. And so the question for me is, Why should I believe one thing rather than another? Why should I be a Jew instead of a Buddhist? There are thousands of options out there.

I just think faith, in order to be intelligent, needs to have reasons behind it. I myself just donít have sufficient reasons for believing in the Christian tradition. The same thing, I think, for the Jewish tradition.

Shanks: All right. How about a final statement: Has your scholarship affected your faith?

Schiffman: Perhaps because of my intellectual background—the way I understand Judaism in general—the more Iíve done in scholarship, the more it has strengthened my faith, even though it has refined it in certain ways. Thereís a non-literalist tradition that Iím coming from. And for this reason a lot of these issues arenít challenges to my faith. Theyíre rather part of the ongoing debate and dialectic.

Dever: At this stage of my life Iím interested only in finding out what it was really like in ancient Israel, if possible, and I find faith an impediment to that.

Strange: I think I would say that faith/unfaith is sort of a false dichotomy. I think faith always contains elements of unfaith and vice versa. So in a way, we canít avoid it. Itís just a matter of deciding what fits and what works. And also, where we get hope from.

Shanks: How about your scholarship, Jim? Has that had any effect?

Strange: Scholarship doesnít give me hope. Scholarship is a wonderful intellectual exercise.

Shanks: The last word is yours, Bart.

Ehrman: Historical scholarship calls into question certain beliefs and can call into question faith. But it canít resolve any faith issues. There are historians who agree with everything that I think about the historical Jesus, about the New Testament, about the development of Christian doctrine, and yet theyíre professors in theological seminaries training pastors. If you ask them, they will say, ďYes, Jesus is God. Historical scholarship doesnít determine what we believe.Ē So I think whatís important is that people engage in historical scholarship. Itís better to have a knowledgeable faith than an ignorant faith, and it may be that it will change faith, but itís not necessarily going to lead somebody to agnosticism.

Shanks: Thank you all very much.

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