DAVID BIANCULLI, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli of tvworthwatching.com, sitting in for Terry Gross.
What is the story of the birth of Jesus? How did Judas die? What did Jesus say when he was crucified? It depends on which Gospel you read. Bible scholar Bart Ehrman says there are irreconcilable differences among the Gospels. Those differences - and what they tell us about Christianity as well as the authors of the Gospels - is the subject of Ehrman's book, "Jesus, Interrupted," which is now available in paperback.
Ehrman is a distinguished professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. He is the author of many books about Bible history, including the best-seller "Misquoting Jesus."
As a young man studying at the Moody Bible Institute, he was an evangelical Christian who believed the Bible was the inerrant word of God. But later, when he was a student at Princeton Theological Seminary, he started reading the Bible with a more historical approach. He analyzed the contradictions among the Gospels, and lost faith in the Bible as the literal word of God. He now describes himself as an agnostic.
Terry spoke to Bart Ehrman last year.
TERRY GROSS, host:
Bart Ehrman, welcome back to FRESH AIR. In your book "Jesus, Interrupted," you compare the Gospels, and discrepancies from one Gospel to another, in everything from factoids to what Jesus said before he died. Why is it important to consider these discrepancies?
Professor BART EHRMAN (Religious Studies, University of North Carolina; Author, "Jesus, Interrupted"): I think it's important to know that each of these authors of the New Testament had a different message. What people tend to do is - allied the various teachings of, say, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John so that if Matthew portrays Jesus in one way and Mark portrays him in a different way, what people do is they conflate the two accounts so that Jesus says and does everything that he says in Matthew and in Mark. But when you do that, you, in fact, rob each of these authors of their own integrity as an author.
When Matthew was writing, he didn't intend for somebody to read some other Gospel and interpret his Gospel in light of what some other author said. He had his own message. And so recognizing that there are these discrepancies is a -kind of a key to the interpretation of these books because it shows that they each have a different message, and that you can't smash the four Gospels into one big Gospel and think that you get the true understanding.
GROSS: Let's look at one of the most significant moments in the story of Jesus, and that is Jesus's death on the cross. In Mark, Jesus dies in agony, unsure of the reason he must die, and he asks God: Why have you forsaken me? Whereas in Luke, he prays: Father, forgive them for they don't know what they're doing. Can you talk about those two different points of view of what happens to Jesus as he's dying on the cross?
Prof. EHRMAN: Right. People don't realize that these are very different portrayals. But when you read Mark's account very carefully, Jesus seems to be in shock. He doesn't say anything the entire time. He's mocked by everybody - by the Roman soldiers, by people passing by.
In Mark's Gospel, he's mocked by both robbers who are being crucified with him. And at the end, his only words are his cry of dereliction, as it's called: My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? And then he cries out and dies, and that's it.
And so it's a story that's filled with pathos and emotion, and Jesus is clearly in great agony going to his death, whereas in Luke, you have a very different portrayal. Jesus isn't silent in Luke while being crucified. When they nail him to the cross, he prays for those who are doing this: Father, forgive them, for they don't know what they're doing.
While he's hanging on the cross, he actually has an intelligent conversation with one of the other people being crucified. One of the others mocks Jesus, and the second person tells the first to be quiet because Jesus hasn't done anything to deserve this. And he turns his head to Jesus and he says Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom. And Jesus replies: Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.
And so Jesus knows fully well what's happening to him and why it's happening to him. And he knows what's going to happen to him after it happens. He's going to wake up in paradise, and this guy's going to be next to him. And the most telling thing of all is that in Luke, instead of crying out, my God, my God, why have you forsaken me - instead of that, Jesus says, Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.
And so what happens is, people take this account of Luke, where Jesus seems to be calm and in control and knows perfectly well what's happening, and combines it with Mark, where Jesus is in doubt and despair. And they put the two accounts into one big account. So Jesus says all the things that he says in Mark and in Luke and thereby, robbing each account of what it's trying to say about Jesus in the face of death.
GROSS: And those two stories are so contradictory, it kind of makes no sense to combine the two?
Prof. EHRMAN: I think it makes no sense, because Mark is trying to say something quite specific about what it was like for Jesus to go to his death. And if you bring into Mark the details from Luke, then Mark's message is lost. Jesus is no longer the way Mark wanted to portray him.
And then, of course, what people do is, they also bring in what Matthew has to say, and then they bring in what John has to say. And you end up with this massive account in which Jesus says and does all of these things, which is unlike any of the Gospels.
So in effect, what people do is - by combining these Gospels in their head into one Gospel they, in effect, have written their own Gospel, which is completely unlike any of the Gospels of the New Testament.
GROSS: What's typically brought into the story of Jesus's final moments on Earth from Matthew and John?
Prof. EHRMAN: Well, an example from John is that Jesus is hanging on the cross, and he cries out: I'm thirsty. And the author tells us that the reason Jesus said he was thirsty wasn't so much because he was thirsty, but because he wanted to fulfill the Scripture. Because there's a Scripture, a Hebrew Bible passage, an Old Testament passage, where it talks about being thirsty.
And so in John's Gospel in particular, Jesus's death isn't an agonizing moment for Jesus. It's an opportunity for Jesus to fulfill Scripture. And so you combine that with what's going on with Mark and Luke, and then you throw in the material from Matthew, and what you end up with is this famous idea that Jesus had seven last dying words, the seven last words of the dying Jesus, which becomes important in churches today that celebrate these seven last words. But in fact, they're not found in any Gospel. They represent conflations of the accounts of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
GROSS: Now, let me bring into these versions of Jesus's last moments on Earth a story from "The Coptic Apocalypse of Peter" - which is what? What is this book?
Prof. EHRMAN: Well, this is a book that was discovered in 1945 in Egypt, along with a number of other Gospels that are - apparently were written, apparently, by gnostic Christians: Christians who believed that the way of salvation wasn't through believing in the death and resurrection of Jesus, but in knowing the truth about who they really are and about who Jesus is, and the truth that Jesus reveals.
And so "The Coptic Apocalypse of Peter" tells an alternative version of what happens when Jesus is crucified. And to modern readers, it sounds very peculiar, indeed.
Peter is standing on a hill, talking with Jesus, and then all of a sudden, he sees down below an image of Jesus being arrested. And he can't understand how he's seeing both things at once. But then he sees Jesus get crucified, and above the cross he sees another image of Christ, who's laughing.
And so Peter - so Peter sees three different representations of Christ. And so, to the Christ next to him, he asks, what am I seeing? I don't understand. And Jesus replies to him that the soldiers think that they're actually crucifying him, but they can't crucify him because he's a supernatural being.
They're only crucifying his earthly shell, his body. But his real self is above the cross, laughing at them for their foolishness in thinking that they can hurt him, the Christ, when in fact, they can't harm him at all because he's not a physical being.
GROSS: Does that story, in a way, combine the two conflicting stories of Mark and Luke because you have, like, the mortal Jesus being crucified, but that's just his shell? But the more - but the spirit of Jesus is kind of laughing at the Romans, who don't realize that they're just killing the shell and not the soul and not the spirit.
So you've got this - in a way, you've got the suffering of the body, but the transcendent soul. So you've, in a way, got two Jesuses there: one who's suffering, and one who can also say forgive them, Father, they don't know what they're doing.
Prof. EHRMAN: Yeah - no, that's a really interesting way to look at it because "The Coptic Apocalypse of Peter" was written after these other Gospels, and he may well have known them. And in a sense, you could say that it is even more influenced by something like the Gospel of John, because in John's Gospel -John is the only Gospel where Jesus is explicitly identified as himself being a divine being, being himself God.
In the other Gospels, he's talked about as the son of God, but in Jewish circles, the son of God wasn't a divine being. The son of God was always a human being. But in the Gospel of John, Jesus is absolutely a divine being. And so, when he gets killed in John's Gospel, there's some question about, well, how physical is it, really?
I mean, Jesus talks about his death as his exaltation in the Gospel of John. And so it's his chance to return to his heavenly home. And that's kind of like what happens in this "Coptic Apocalypse of Peter," that the death of Jesus isn't a serious moment of agony. It's simply a way of Jesus getting out of this world.
BIANCULLI: Bart Ehrman, speaking to Terry Gross in 2009. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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BIANCULLI: Let's get back to Terry's 2009 interview with Bart Ehrman. He's the author of "Jesus, Interrupted," which is now out in paperback. It's a book analyzing discrepancies among the Gospels in the New Testament.
GROSS: And another difference from one Gospel to another, that you write about in your new book, is John's version of Jesus has Jesus talking about himself and proclaiming who he is, saying, I am the bread of life; I am the light of the world - whereas in Mark, Jesus teaches principally about God and the coming kingdom, and hardly ever talks directly about himself. Can you elaborate on those two different visions of Jesus?
Prof. EHRMAN: Right. A lot of people who read the Bible don't see the difference because - I guess because of the way they read the Bible, which is they simply open up and read a portion here or a portion there, but they don't do a careful comparison of what one author says with what another author says. But the reality is that when you read Mark's Gospel, which was probably our first Gospel, Jesus says very little about himself.
He talks about how he must go to Jerusalem and be rejected and be crucified and then raised from the dead. But he never identifies himself as divine, for example. He never says, I am the son of God. The only time in Mark's Gospel that he admits that he's the Messiah is at the very end, when he's put on trial, and the high priest asks him, are you the Messiah? And he says yes, I am.
So in Mark's Gospel, Jesus is not interested in teaching about himself. But when you read John's Gospel, that's virtually the only thing Jesus talks about -is who he is, what his identity is, where he came from - he came from above with the Father - where he's going - he's returning to the Father. And he, himself, is in some sense, divine.
As he says in John Chapter 10: I and the Father are one. Or as he says in Chapter 8: Before Abraham was, I am. Abraham was the father of the Jews, who lived 1,800 years before Jesus. And Jesus actually appears to be claiming to be a representation of God on Earth.
This is completely unlike anything that you find in Mark or in Matthew and Luke. And it - historically, it creates all sorts of problems because if the historical Jesus actually went around saying that he was God, it's very hard to believe that Matthew, Mark and Luke left out that part - you know, as if that part wasn't important to mention.
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Prof. EHRMAN: But in fact, they don't mention it. And so this view of the divinity of Jesus on his own lips is found only in our latest Gospel, the Gospel of John.
GROSS: So do you have any explanation about why John's version of Jesus would be so much different than the other Gospels?
Prof. EHRMAN: What scholars have thought for a long time now is that John is the last Gospel to be written, and that the understanding of Jesus had changed dramatically in the years between the Gospels - that specifically, John's Gospel was written in a community that was a heavily persecuted Christian community that started out, probably, as a community of Jews worshiping in the synagogue who had come to believe that Jesus was the messiah but had been kicked out of their synagogue - probably because they were trying to convert people, and people didn't want to be converted. And they ended up making themselves into a nuisance, and they got kicked out of their synagogue.
And so, they started their own community of faith. And in that particular community - the community that John, out of which John wrote his Gospel - this community tried to understand why it is we've been rejected by our Jewish families and friends. And the way they started imagining it was that the reason they've rejected us, and have rejected Jesus as the messiah, is because Jesus actually doesn't come from this world, and these other people are thinking just in worldly terms.
They're from the Earth, and Jesus is from heaven, and they can't understand a heavenly being because they are earthly beings. And so, with this process of thought, over time Jesus becomes more and more of a heavenly being who's a mystery on Earth that only the insiders can understand.
And so with the passing of years, Jesus develops a kind of exalted status in this particular community until, by the time the Gospel of John is written, Jesus is understood as being equal with God himself, a divine being who came down from heaven to reveal the truth that can set people free so that those who believe in him will have eternal life up in heaven with God.
And so, this is a distinctive teaching of this particular community that - an understanding that developed because of the social history that took place before the Gospel was written.
GROSS: Now, earlier we were talking about contradictions in the Gospels, about Jesus's final moments on Earth. There are different interpretations in the Gospels about why Jesus died. You write that for Mark, Jesus's death is an atonement whereas for Luke, it's the reason people realize they're sinful and need to turn to God for forgiveness. Can you discuss these two interpretations?
Prof. EHRMAN: Right. This is another thing that a lot of people don't pick up on because everybody assumes that the entire Bible must have the same view about why Jesus died. But in fact, if you read the different authors, there are markedly different views.
The earliest account we have of Jesus's life, of course, is the Gospel of Mark. And in Mark, there's a fairly unambiguous view. In Mark's Gospel, Jesus states -during his ministry, in Mark, Chapter 10 - that he, the son of man, came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.
So this encapsulates Mark's views, that Jesus' death somehow brings about an atonement for sin, that because Jesus dies, people can have a right standing before God through the death of Jesus.
Luke was writing probably 15 years, maybe 20 years after Mark, and actually knew the Gospel of Mark. He reproduced a good bit of Mark's Gospel in his Gospel, in the Gospel of Luke.
What is striking is that he took out this verse that - where it says that where Jesus says that he's come to give his life as a ransom for many. Luke took out that verse, and when Luke portrays the crucifixion of Jesus, there's nothing about the crucifixion scene that makes you think that this death is meant to be an atonement for sin.
In fact, Luke also wrote a second volume that we have in the New Testament. He also wrote the Book of Acts, which talks about the spread of Christianity through the Roman Empire. And there are a number of sermons in Acts in which the apostles are trying to convert people. And in these sermons, they talk about the death of Jesus, but they never mention that Jesus's death is an atonement for sin.
Instead, what they say is that Jesus's death was a huge miscarriage of justice. The people who did it are guilty before God, and they need to turn to God so that God - in repentance - so that God will forgive them.
In other words, the way the death of Jesus works in Luke is not that it brings atonement for sin. It's the occasion that people have for realizing their sinfulness so that they can repent, and God will forgive them.
GROSS: So that's a pretty fundamental difference in the perception of the symbolic significance of Christ's death.
Prof. EHRMAN: Absolutely. And it's not the only - these are not the only two views. The early Christians had a lot of different views about the significance of Jesus's death.
The thing that made them all Christian, I think, is that all of them thought that Jesus's death, in some way, was important for human beings' standing before God. But as it turns out, there are some groups of Christians - in the first, second century - who didn't think that the death of Jesus actually mattered that much for salvation.
And so some of the Gospels that didn't make it into the New Testament see the death of Jesus as just kind of a blip on the screen.
What really matters isn't Jesus's death. What matters is the secret teachings that he delivered. And it's these secret teachings that can bring salvation. This is a view that ended up being opposed by other Christians, and so the books containing this particular view didn't make it into the canon.
GROSS: One of the things that Christians say about Jesus is that he died for our sins. So how does that statement fit into these conflicting stories about Jesus's death?
Prof. EHRMAN: Well, I think that that statement would be true for some of the authors of the Bible who do think that Jesus died for sins. This is true of Mark, and it's true, for example, of the writings of the apostle Paul. But I don't think it's true for the Gospel of Luke.
In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus dies out of a - because of a miscarriage of justice. He's an innocent man who's unjustly put to death. And the way it relates to sins isn't that he dies for sins. He dies, and when people realize this huge mistake they made in crucifying Jesus, they feel guilty, and they turn back to God, and God forgives them, so that the death isn't what brings about an atonement for sins. It's a forgiveness that God gives them. And the death of Jesus then is simply an occasion to repent.
BIANCULLI: Bart Ehrman, speaking with Terry Gross last year. His book analyzing the New Testament Gospels, "Jesus, Interrupted," is now out in paperback. We'll continue their conversation in the second half of the show. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.
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BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Im David Bianculli, in for Terry Gross. Let's get back to Terry's conversation with Bible scholar Bart Ehrman. His book "Jesus, Interrupted," now available on paperback, is about the contradictions in the New Testament Gospels regarding the life and death of Jesus. Ehrman also analyzes what those contradictions tell us about the authors of the Gospels and about early Christianity.
Ehrman is a distinguished professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and also is the author of the best-seller Misquoting Jesus. He spoke to Terry in March of 2009.
GROSS: In which Gospels is Jesus portrayed as an apocalypticist?
Prof. EHRMAN: Right. So this is a term that scholars have used about Jesus, that he was an apocalypticist. For over 100 years, this was the view that was popularized - especially by Albert Schweitzer. Before he became a great medical missionary, he wrote his most important book, The Quest of the Historical Jesus, in which he argued that Jesus had an apocalyptic view, which was the view that this world we live in is controlled by forces of evil, but God is soon going to intervene in the course of affairs and overthrow the forces of evil, and bring in good kingdom on Earth.
And in three of our Gospels, Jesus takes on this point of view, predicting that the end is coming soon and people need to repent and prepare because the kingdom of God is soon to arrive. And when Jesus talks about the kingdom of God in these ways, he doesnt mean heaven when you die. He actually means a kingdom here on Earth. Theres going to be a kingdom thats going to be ruled by God - as opposed do these crummy kingdoms ruled by Rome, or whatever other power now. Gods kingdom will arrive. So this point of view is taught prominently in Mathew, Mark and Luke, our three earliest Gospels.
In Marks Gospel, Jesus is quite clear that this end of the age, this cataclysmic judgment of the world, is going to happen very soon. As he tells his disciples in Mark, some of you standing here will not taste death before they see that the kingdom of God has come in power or as he says later in Mark, Chapter 13, after describing how the heaven will turn dark and the moon will turn to blood, and the stars will fall from the sky - in other words, the whole world is going to be uncreated when this catastrophe hit - and he says to his disciples: This generation will not pass away before all these things take place. And so this was a view found in the earliest documents we have about Jesus.
GROSS: So as you write, as an apocalypticist, Jesus preached that you should change your behavior not necessarily for moral reasons - not to make life on Earth better - but to save your soul and get entrance into the kingdom of heaven when the apocalypse comes. Is that a fair way to look at it?
Prof. EHRMAN: Yeah, thats right, thats right. I mean, today people have all sorts of grounds for ethics. But one of the major grounds that people have is they think that you should be ethical so that we can all get along for the long haul. You know, it would make Earth a better place for everybody. And so -because that will put us in good stead over a long period of time. Well, Jesus didnt think there was going to be a long haul. So when people say that Jesus was a great teacher of ethics, I think thats absolutely true.
But one needs to understand that his ethical teaching is rooted in a completely different worldview from the one that most people have today. For Jesus, the reason that you needed to start following God and doing what God wanted you to do the reason to behave ethically - is because the judgment day was coming and it could be sometime next Thursday. And you need to be ready for it by behaving in the ways that God wants you to, so that when this cosmic judge of the Earth arrives and catastrophe starts happening, youll be on the right side. And youll be able to enter into this good kingdom that Gods bringing because if you disobey God and you're acting badly, youre going to be destroyed when this cosmic judge arrives.
GROSS: But I - you know, Ive read several scholars of the historical Jesus who see it very differently. And they see Jesus as this social activist of his era, somebody who worked on behalf of the poor, who had egalitarian impulses, who was almost a socialist in his thinking.
Prof. EHRMAN: Thats right. Theres a wide range of opinions about who Jesus is. And in the last 20 years, there have been people who've wanted scholars who have wanted to redefine Jesus so that hes not an apocalypticist. But the majority of scholars dont agree with that. But there is something to be said about Jesus as a social reformer and somebody who promoted egalitarian principles. But the reason is not the one thats sometimes given. The reason Jesus wanted to reform society, and supported things such as the roles of women in society and such, is because he thought thats what the kingdom was going to be like.
In the kingdom, theres not going to be inequality. Theres not going to - oppression. Theres not going to be war. Theres not going to be there's going to be equality of all people. And so you should start implementing the ideals of that future kingdom in the present.
GROSS: Could you say that the apocalyptic, utopian vision of what the future would be like is used by Jesus as a kind of metaphor, as a utopian ideal that should be - that one should strive for even if one cant fulfill on it on Earth, one should strive for this utopian ideal? Could you see it in a metaphoric way like that?
Prof. EHRMAN: Right.
GROSS: As opposed to like, he literally believed that there would be an apocalyptic end times and then a literal heaven.
Prof. EHRMAN: Right. There are scholars who want to see all of this talk about this coming judgment of the Earth, and the catastrophes that are going to happen, as pure metaphor. And I think the reason they want to see it that way is because if you think that Jesus literally thought that there was going to be a coming end of the age well, it didnt happen. And so Jesus wouldve been wrong. And some scholars are uncomfortable with the idea that Jesus could be wrong.
I think the only way, though, to decide whether this is metaphor or meant to be taken literally is by looking at what other Jews in the first century were saying. And as it turns out, there were a lot of Jews who were talking about the literal end of the world as they knew it - including, for example, John the Baptist, who thought that the end was coming right away and that people needed to prepare or they would be judged; including the people who produced the Dead Sea Scrolls, which are filled with this apocalyptic kind of thinking; and including Jesus's own followers.
The apostle Paul definitely feels that Jesus is coming back right away - that Jesus is going to be this cosmic judge - and that the Earth is going to be transformed. And Paul describes it not in metaphorical terms but in literally, whats going to happen at the end. And so I think the desire for Jesus not to be literally meaning this is rooted in an understandable theological move, that you dont want to have Jesus say things that didnt come true.
But if you actually situate to Jesus in his own historical context, this is the sort of thing that a lot of people expected was going to happen - just as people today. I mean, in evangelical Christian circles today, there are many people who think that Jesus is coming back - and they dont mean that metaphorically. They think that Jesus, literally, is going to come back. And I think they had their predecessors in the first century.
GROSS: Im interested in what you think of the popularity of that point of view. Theres the Left Behind series of novels, which have sold a remarkable - I dont have the figures on hand, but like, tens of millions of copies. And thats a novel a series of novels based on the apocalypse. A lot of people today believe in the Rapture, that the second coming of Jesus is imminent and the people who are believers will rise to heaven, will be raptured to heaven. And everybody else will be left behind to face the trials and tribulations and wars and plagues, and so on. And there are several very politically powerful people who believe that now.
Prof. EHRMAN: Yeah, thats right. And, you know, the Left Behind series sold far more copies than The Da Vinci Code.
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Prof. EHRMAN: As hard as that may be to believe. But in fact, it did. And whats striking is that this idea that we are now living at the end of time, and that current events are showing us fulfillments of Biblical prophecy - exactly the same thing was being said 10 years ago about things happening 10 years ago -and 10 years before that, and 10 years before that, and 10 years before that. You can go all the way back in Christian history, and every decade thought that they were living at the end of time, and that the prophecies were being fulfilled in their own day.
You can trace this back through the Middle Ages, all the way back to early Christianity. In fact, you can trace it back to the apostle Paul and the historical Jesus. People have thought this from day one. And what I sometimes tell my students is that you can say two things about these people who think that the end is going to come within their lifetime. One thing is that every one of them bases it on their certain interpretations of the Bible especially, for example, the Book of Revelation. And the second thing you can say is that every single one of these people has been completely wrong.
The point, though, is that this view actually does go back to the historical Jesus. Jesus also predicted that the end was going to come within his generation and, of course, it didnt.
BIANCULLI: Bart Ehrman, speaking to Terry Gross. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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BIANCULLI: Let's get back to Terry's 2009 interview with Bible scholar Bart Ehrman. His book "Jesus, Interrupted" is now out in paperback.
GROSS: How did the historical approach to reading the Bible affect your faith? You know, youve told us before that you had been a devout, evangelical Christian. You studied at the Moody Bible Institute. Then you went to Princeton Theological Seminary and there, undertook a historical reading of the Bible, as opposed to a devotional one. So what impact did the historical reading of the Bible and seeing the contradictions - many more contradictions than youve been telling us about today, you know, from one Gospel to another - how did that affect your faith?
Prof. EHRMAN: Right. So when I started off studying the Bible, I had had this born-again experience in high school and had become an evangelical Christian. In some ways, I suppose, I wouldve been classified as a fundamentalist. I believed that the Bible was completely inerrant, that there were no mistakes in it whatsoever - of any kind. When I took Greek in college and realized I was pretty good in it, I decided that I wanted to pursue the study of the Greek New Testament - largely for religious reasons, because I thought these are the words that God has given us, and I want to know these words in the original language, in Greek.
And so I went off to study the Greek manuscripts of the New Testament, at Princeton Theological Seminary, because the leading scholar in that field, a man named Bruce Metzger, happened to teach there. Princeton Seminary - the faculty there - did not share the view that the Bible was the inerrant word of God.
Most of them - they were all Christians, and many of them had very high views of Scripture, but they were not fundamentalists or even strong evangelicals. Many of them recognized that in fact, there are lots of discrepancies in the Bible and that the Bible might convey the word of God, but the very words were not dictated by God in any way.
And so I resisted that view for a long time, while I was in seminary. And then I went on and did my Ph.D. at Princeton, also with Bruce Metzger. But the more I studied the Bible, the more I started realizing that in fact, you know, I could say there werent any errors in the Bible, but the closer you looked at it, it sure looked like there were errors in the Bible.
And many of the ones that got my notice were very small, little details here and there, discrepancies between where one Gospel says and another Gospel says - or discrepancy between what the New Testament says versus what the Old Testament says, or discrepancies within the Old Testament. And I got to a point where I started realizing that I couldnt reconcile all of these discrepancies. And you know, many of them are just quite clear contradictions - some of the ones we havent actually talked about on the program so far.
But I got to a point where I realized there are contradictions. And once I said that, it had a serious effect on my faith because my faith was rooted in an inerrant revelation from God. And I began realizing that, in fact, this revelation was not inerrant. This revelation, in fact, had errors. And once I started seeing errors, I started finding them everywhere.
GROSS: Well, you kind of pose the question in your book: Is faith possible after you've studied the Bible historically, and you start to see these contradictions and discrepancies from one story of Jesus to the other?
Prof. EHRMAN: Right. So the reason I wrote this last chapter "Is Faith Possible?" - is because some people who have read some of my earlier books have said that once I realized that there were differences among our Greek manuscripts, that we dont know what the original text is, that because of that I became an agnostic - which is not just wrong but a little bit crazy.
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Prof. EHRMAN: I mean, I didnt become an agnostic because I realized that there were differences in our manuscripts. And in fact, I didnt become an agnostic when I realized that there were discrepancies in the Bible, or contradictions. For about 15 years, I continued to be a very devout Christian. I went to church every week, confessed my sins, believed in God, believed Christ was the salvation for the human race, and all the rest. But I did start developing a different view of the Bible - that I started seeing it less as a literal word from God, and more as a set of books that contained important spiritual teachings by religious people, some of whom were religious geniuses, like the apostle Paul, for example - or the authors of the Gospels, who had real insight into the spiritual world.
And so its not that they gave an inerrant revelation, but they had insights into the truth, and they had different insights into the truth - so that Marks views were different from Matthews because Mark had a different perspective than Matthew. And I came to think that you cant just reconcile the two because that - when you reconcile Matthew and Mark and pretend theyre saying the same thing, then youre not paying attention to what either one of them is saying. And so for about 15 years or so, I continued to be a Christian of a more liberal persuasion.
And the reason I left the faith, ultimately, had nothing to do with my historical study of the Bible, per se. What really did me in was the subject of this other book I wrote, Gods Problem, the problem of suffering. I just came to a point where I no longer could believe that there was a good and powerful God who was in control of this world, given the state of things here.
GROSS: You used to be devout. Youre now an agnostic. You used to believe in heaven and hell, which is quite a motivator.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Prof. EHRMAN: Yes.
GROSS: And also, if you believe youre going to heaven, thats cause for a feeling of inner peace?
Prof. EHRMAN: Yes.
GROSS: And a sense of meaning on life - for life - that life is, just, you know, a kind of stepping stone toward an afterlife, a profound afterlife. So now that you no longer are a believer and therefore, you probably no longer believe in heaven and hell, has it changed your motivation for what you do on Earth? And has it changed your sense of what the meaning of your life is?
Prof. EHRMAN: Thats a great question. You know, what happened with me with respect to heaven and hell - I guess is what happened with a lot of the Christian doctrines - is as a historian, I came to see where these ideas came from. And I realized that these ideas didnt descend from heaven one day soon after Jesus's death, that in fact, the doctrines of heaven and hell were human creations -that the humans came up these views of heaven and hell.
And in my book, I explain a little bit how that happened, that doctrines of heaven and hell developed within early Christianity; that they werent actually the teachings of Jesus or of his earliest followers, but they were later developments, as were the doctrines of the trinity, for example, or the divinity of Christ.
But as to what effect that had on me personally - one of the reasons I was afraid to become an agnostic was - when I was still a Christian - is I thought that if I became an agnostic, I would have no grounds for ethical behavior. Id have no moral compass. And I thought that that would probably lead me to become a completely licentious reprobate.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Prof. EHRMAN: But as it turns out, thats completely wrong. I think I actually have more of a sense of the meaning of life now than I ever had as a believer. There are lots of reasons to behave ethically. I think many of us are simply hardwired to want to love our neighbor as ourselves, and to try and do unto others as wed want them to do unto us. And I think that since life is all there is - this life is it, that after we die, we no longer exist - that we should grab life for everything that it can give us. And we should live life to its fullest and should enjoy it as much as we can because this is not a dry run for something else. This is it. And we should help other people who are suffering now so they, too, can enjoy life. And so, in fact, my giving up on the sense of an afterlife has made this life for me much more meaningful.
GROSS: Well, Bart Ehrman, its great to talk with you again. I really appreciate it, and thank you so much.
Prof. EHRMAN: OK, thanks for having me.
BIANCULLI: Bible scholar Bart Ehrman, speaking to Terry Gross last year. His book Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible is now available on paperback. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.
The New Testament contains multiple versions of the life and teachings of Jesus. Bart Ehrman, the author of Jesus, Interrupted,, says they are at odds with each other on important points regarding the life, death and divinity of Jesus.
Jesus And The Hidden Contradictions Of The Gospels
Bible scholar Bart Ehrman began his studies at the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago. Originally an evangelical Christian, Ehrman believed that the Bible was the inerrant word of God. But later, as a student at Princeton Theological Seminary, Ehrman started reading the Bible with a more historical approach and analyzing contradictions in the Gospels.
Ehrman, the author of Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (and Why We Don't Know About Them), tells Terry Gross that he discourages readers from "smash[ing] the four Gospels into one big Gospel and think[ing] that [they] get the true understanding."
"When Matthew was writing, he didn't intend for somebody ... to interpret his Gospel in light of what some other author said. He had his own message," Ehrman says.
To illustrate the differences between the Gospels, Ehrman offers opposing depictions of Jesus talking about himself. In the book of John, Jesus talks about himself and proclaims who he is, saying "I am the bread of life." Whereas in Mark, Jesus teaches principally about the coming kingdom and hardly ever mentions himself directly. These differences offer clues into the perspectives of the authors, and the eras in which they wrote their respective Gospels, according to Ehrman.
"In Mark's Gospel, Jesus is not interested in teaching about himself. But when you read John's Gospel, that's virtually the only thing Jesus talks about is who he is, what his identity is, where he came from," Ehrman says. "This is completely unlike anything that you find in Mark or in Matthew and Luke. And historically it creates all sorts of problems, because if the historical Jesus actually went around saying that he was God, it's very hard to believe that Matthew, Mark and Luke left out that part — you know, as if that part wasn't important to mention. But in fact, they don't mention it. And so this view of the divinity of Jesus on his own lips is found only in our latest Gospel, the Gospel of John."
Ehrman teaches religious studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. His book, Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible, is now out in paperback.
This interview was originally broadcast on March 4, 2009