By Bart Ehrman
author, religion professor
“Are you out to destroy the Christian religion?” I’ve been asked this question several times over the past month, as some evangelicals have expressed shock and outrage over my book, “Jesus Interrupted,” where I deal with the historical problems of the New Testament. These problems are rife, to be sure. The New Testament contains numerous discrepancies and contradictions; different New Testament authors have different perspectives on key issues, such as who Jesus is and how one can attain salvation; a large number of New Testament books were not written by the people who claim to be their authors; and several key doctrines of Christianity — the deity of Christ, the Trinity, the idea of heaven and hell — cannot be found on the lips of the historical Jesus or the pens of his earliest followers. But doesn’t that make Christianity bogus? “Are you out to destroy the Christian religion?”
The truth is that I find this question more than a little odd. For one thing, I learned all of these problems in a leading Protestant theological seminary, while taking Bible classes in preparation for Christian ministry. These problems are regularly taught in mainline seminaries (Presbyterian, Lutheran, Methodist, Episcopalian, now Catholic) — taught by Christians to prospective Christian ministers in order to prepare them for Christian service. Moreover, these problems have been known for decades, in some cases for well over a century. Only strong evangelicals and fundamentalists demur; ironically, these conservative Christians have a completely modern, not a historical, understanding of the Bible.
The idea that to be a Christian you have to “believe in the Bible” (meaning, believe that it is in some sense infallible) is a modern invention. Church historians have traced the view, rather precisely, to the Niagara Conference on the Bible, in the 1870s, held over a number of years to foster belief in the Bible in opposition to liberal theologians who were accepting the results of historical scholarship. In 1878 the conference summarized the true faith in a series of fourteen statements. The very first one — to be believed above all else — was not belief in God, or in the death and resurrection of Jesus. It was belief in the Bible:
We believe “that all Scripture is given by inspiration of God,” [that] the Holy Ghost gave the very words of the sacred writings to holy men of old; and that His Divine inspiration is not in different degrees, but extends equally and fully to all parts of these writings, historical, poetical, doctrinal, and prophetical and to the smallest word, and inflection of a word, provided such word is found in the original manuscripts:
To make faith in the Bible the most important tenet of Christianity was a radical shift in thinking — away, for example, from traditional statements of faith such as the Apostles Creed and the Nicene Creed, which say not a word about belief in the Bible.
The fourteen statements of the so-called Niagara Creed were called “The Fundamentals.” Those who adopted such “fundamentals” of the faith later called themselves “fundamentalists.” Today the term fundamentalist is almost completely pejorative. Even most fundamentalists refuse to admit they are fundamentalists (“fundamentalists” are always the hyper-religious people to your far right, wherever you stand theologically). But the basic fundamentalist faith in the inerrancy of Scripture has become a fixture of one segment of Protestant Christianity, especially in parts of this country, such as the South, where I live. Here, to be a Christian, you have to “believe in the Bible.”
Throughout most of history most Christian thinkers would have been seen this view as theological nonsense. Or blasphemy. The Bible was never to be an object of faith. God through Christ was. Being a Christian meant believing in Christ, not believing in the Bible.
Here are the historical realities. Christianity existed before the Bible came into being: no one decided that our twenty-seven books of the New Testament should be “the” Christian Scripture until three hundred years after the death of the apostles. Since that time Christianity has existed in places where there were no Bibles to be found, where no one could read the Bible, where no one correctly understood the Bible. Yet it has existed. Christianity does not stand or fall with the Bible.
And so, biblical scholarship will not destroy Christianity. It might de-convert people away from a modern form of fundamentalist belief. But that might be a very good thing indeed.
Bart D. Ehrman is the author of more than 20 books, incuding his new “Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible,” published by HarperCollins. Ehrman is the James A. Gray Distinguished Professor at the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill. He came to UNC in 1988, after four years of teaching at Rutgers University. At UNC he has served as both the Director of Graduate Studies and the Chair of the Department of Religious Studies.