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The Sunday School Teacher Turned Skeptic: Meet Bart Ehrman

photo of Bart Ehrman
Courtesy of Bart Ehrman

In academic circles, Bart Ehrman is regarded as one of the world’s most influential New Testament scholars. But after publishing his first book designed for the masses, “Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why” (HarperCollins/2005), Ehrman’s reputation expanded beyond the academy and into many American households. His unabashed willingness to perform textual criticism on the Bible was offensive and polarizing for many believers. But perhaps Ehrman understood their viewpoints better than they understood his.

He began his career as a fundamentalist Christian who believed the Bible was the inerrant word of God. His hunger to learn everything he could about the world’s most popular holy book led him to several academic institutions and a vast amount of knowledge that caused him to question, and eventually reject, the worldview that brought him there in the first place.

Host Frank Stasio talks with Bart Ehrman about his past as a high school evangelist with a knack for debating, the inner conflict that haunted his years as a graduate student, and the moment he finally decided it was time to leave his faith behind. Ehrman is the James A. Gray distinguished professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He recently published the book “The Triumph of Christianity: How a Forbidden Religion Swept the World” (2018/Simon & Schuster) which tells the story of how Christianity grew from the religion of a few peasants in the Roman Empire to become the most powerful cultural force in the West. Ehrman will speak at a symposium on faith in everyday life alongside Robert M. Franklin Jr. at Playmakers Repertory Company on the UNC-Chapel Hill campus Saturday, March 10.

Interview Highlights

On his Christian upbringing in Lawrence, Kansas: We were fairly religious. I would say my mother especially was very devout, and we were faithful churchgoers. But we in the Episcopal church tended to go to the 7:30 service so we could be on the golf course by nine.

On becoming a born-again Christian in high school: I was impressed with this [Christian] group that was meeting every week. There were social events, and there were kids in my high school who I respected that were involved with it, and so I thought it must be a good thing. And I had this kind of religious root anyway. And so I think the combination of those two things – it gave me a sense of belonging. It gave me a sense of certainty. And it just seemed to be like the right thing at the time, so I absolutely became completely gung-ho about it … I came to think that this kind of commitment to Christ was the only thing that could possibly save me.

On his teenage knowledge of the Bible: You know, I went to Sunday School in the Episcopal church, but we didn’t talk about the Bible. We talked about social issues, or how to live, or whatever. But when I became a born-again Christian, I was convinced that the Bible was the word of God, but I found how completely ignorant I was of it. I’d be talking to somebody, a friend, and telling them about this great thing I’d done, how I’d asked Jesus into my heart, and how they needed to do it, and how this is all based on the Bible. And they’d say: Where? And I would open up the Bible, and I had no idea!

a photo of a Bible
Credit Creative Commons / Pixabay
As Bart Ehrman spent more time critically analyzing the text of the New Testament, he began to lose his personal faith in Christianity.

On attending Moody Bible Institute: I knew nothing about Moody Bible Institute other than that they studied a lot of Bible there. That’s what I wanted to do … Everything else was subservient to Christian ministry. And so my degree was in Bible theology. We had to take English classes, but the English classes were so you knew how to communicate the gospel. Our history classes were church history classes. Our music classes were church music classes, Christian music … I was growing much more deeply in my faith  – learning how to defend my faith.

On learning ancient Greek: That was a very eye-opening experience for me and started me down the path that I’m now on … I’m able to compare stories, say between Matthew and Mark in the original Greek and find differences. Now I’m having to work much harder to reconcile differences … I’m finding it to be a challenge. And the thing I get really interested in is the possibility of studying the original Greek manuscripts of the New Testament. We don't have the original copies of any of the books of the NT. We only have later copies from later centuries, and I got very interested in trying to decide what the original text said, given the fact that we only have later copies, all of which have mistakes in them. And at this point, that’s what I decide I want to devote my academic life to.

On losing faith in Biblical inerrancy at Princeton: I did my very best to hold on to my faith that the Bible was the inspired word of God with no mistakes and that lasted for about two years … I realized that at the time we had over 5,000 manuscripts of the New Testament, and no two of them are exactly alike. The scribes were changing them, sometimes in big ways, but lots of times in little ways. And it finally occurred to me that if I really thought that God had inspired this text  ... If he went to the trouble of inspiring the text, why didn’t he go to the trouble of preserving the text? Why did he allow scribes to change it?

On finally leaving Christianity: A lot of people do feel angry when they deconvert. And a lot of people have asked me whether I felt, or do feel angry. I just never had that sensation. I had a sense of loss more than a sense of anger. I just felt like something was being taken away from me that was creating a void in my life. And I felt a kind of emptiness. So then, the task was to fill it with other things.

Robert is a journalist and award-winning documentary filmmaker in the Triangle. He grew up in White Lake, a rural resort community in southeastern NC. The tales he heard about White Lake as a child would become the topic of his UNC-TV historical documentary, White Lake: Remembering the Nation's Safest Beach. In May 2017, he received a bachelor's degree in interactive multimedia from the Media and Journalism School at UNC-Chapel Hill with a minor in religious studies.
Longtime NPR correspondent Frank Stasio was named permanent host of The State of Things in June 2006. A native of Buffalo, Frank has been in radio since the age of 19. He began his public radio career at WOI in Ames, Iowa, where he was a magazine show anchor and the station's News Director.
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