Why did Bart Ehrman really leave Christianity?

Questions about God, the Bible and the Christian culture 

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Question: I believe that the Bible is inerrant, uncorrupt Word of God. And I also read the Got Questions article on bibliolatry. My question is, people like Bart Ehrman who claim to have been Christians and "strong believers in the Bible" and later eventually became agnostic or atheist or another religion, do these type of people commit "bibliolatry" in the sense of viewing the Bible's perfection based on human fallible reasoning rather than based on the belief of God's di-vine preservation of Scripture? I mean, if people like Bart Ehrman were honestly Christian — and even if they thought the Bible was corrupt — they would still not leave Christ's reassurance of salvation and His unconditional love? I am honestly confused by this type of people who claim to find "errors" in the Bible.

Answer: Greetings friend. I am particularly happy to field this question today; this is an area of special interest to me. In fact, I’m currently teaching a module on the heartiness of our beliefs — focusing on how we believers should handle these serious-sounding attacks on certain segments of our faith. So (and in my recently refreshed opinion) if Bart Ehrman had adopted a less brittle inerrancy model, he might not have begun a spiritual death-spiral. This is why I am glad that you subscribe to a more reasonable version of inerrancy — one that includes supernatural preservation of the Scripture. This is a sensible and robust stand on inerrancy.

Christians who are aware of the Bart Ehrman issue cannot help but ask, “What went wrong with his Christianity?”… but while never losing sight that he is a credentialed, accomplished and popular New Testament textual critic… a guy who (ostensibly) has already been where we are — a Christian — who has spent decades examining the data with his considerable gifts… yet who has become apostate — and publicly so. Christians like me who affirm that the New Testament texts are an important part of our cumulative case for Christ must address the Ehrman phenomenon irrespective of where we stand on the Ehrman conclusions, so here are some of my thoughts.

First and foremost, he’s just one scholar… and scholars disagree for a living. This isn’t a problem; this is how thought progresses. So, if we plot Ehrman’s stands on certain of the data, we will find him in and among the consensus in several important areas — and perhaps as an outlier in some others. But note this well, the fact that Ehrman identifies himself as a former believer does nothing to change the consensus among historians and textual critics about the quality of our documents, nor should it change the positive impact that that has on our beliefs. If Ehrman’s fellow scholars — even those who were in sympathy with his worldview — detected any bias one way or the other in his works, they would be obliged to give him the scholars’ version of a beat-down for sullying their aggregate reputation. But scholars do not pitch to the book-buying public in the same way they do to their peers… because… well… there wouldn’t be much book-buying going on.

But can Ehrman (or indeed, can anyone) separate the self from the activities of the self? I think we can be amazingly successful at this — especially in a world of peer review where ideas must be vetted under the most critical eyes possible. But I think we understand that we can never fully separate the product from the producer (or the analysis from the analyst) when using thousands of words to convey conclusions… although I am not trying to build Ehrman a hiding place here. In my opinion, when he turned to the popular audience, a wounded boy started peeking through his pages.

Misquoting Jesus put Ehrman on the New York Times best-selling list, and he has followed up his success with other works. But with his change in focus to a popular audience came the change in scholastic discipline… and vindictiveness towards God began to show… but especially where he characterized the New Testament as plausibly having a fraction of a million errors.

Now, please note that he used the technical word “variants” and not “errors” to indicate those places where the texts are not perfectly matched. But when Ehrman, a noted textual-critic-turned–atheist, writes a popular-level book that might as well be entitled God Doesn’t Exist and the Bible Lies, I think he understood that most people would understand the variants to be errors… and they will be left with the impression that there are more errors than there are words in the New Testament. This is a shameful use of God-given intelligence. So please eavesdrop as I call him out for that in another Q & A.

….I should say a few words about the New Testament manuscript variants, because the layman is often confused by the true but decontextualized comments of people like New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman.

"Scholars differ significantly in their estimates—some say there are 200,000 variants known, some say 300,000, some say 400,000 or more! We do not know for sure because, despite impressive developments in computer technology, no one has yet been able to count them all. Perhaps, as I indicated earlier, it is best simply to leave the matter in comparative terms. There are more variations among our manuscripts than there are words in the New Testament."

Misquoting Jesus: The Story behind Who Changed the Bible and Why, Bart D. Ehrman, HarperCollins, 2005

Doesn’t Ehrman (who is a credible scholar with good credentials and a good job) leave us with the impression that there could be 400,000 mistakes in the New Testament… more mistakes than it has words? He sure does — and boy… he sure sells some books! But did you notice the waffling… that bit about computers and counting… and how he never lifts the veil on what a variant might be. So, what does one do with Ehrman’s statement about all those manuscript variants?

Among other things, one reads Craig Blomberg's response to Ehrman in his book:

Can We Still Believe the Bible? An Evangelical Engagement with Contemporary Questions (Baker Publishing Group, 2014)

It’s obvious what we have here: two scholars cancelling each other out… so it’s time to put any lingering postmodernism aside, because when it comes to a “yes or no” answer on biblical inerrancy, they cannot both be right… and I agree with Blomberg. To see why, let’s look more closely at Ehrman’s quote, because there is a critical issue hidden within it that he did not reveal — one that supports the New Testament’s veracity rather than fights it.

In order for anyone to enumerate manuscript variants in the 200,000 – 400,000 range, one needs a large (and I mean large) supply of rare ancient manuscripts. Well, guess what? We have well over five-thousand of these, as your question noted… but you noted this as a problem. But it’s not a problem; it’s an advantage presented as a problem — and Ehrman uses this to set the hook… in spite of the fact that the more documents you have, the better your data — which is an advantage for those who support the New Testament project, not for Ehrman.


When persons like Ehrman, Richard Dawkins or Stephen Hawking, who are credentialed, accomplished and respected in their specialties, write popular-level books which have more to do with philosophy than with their expertise, they are implying that anything that a first-rate scholar or scientist says is the result of first-rate scholarship. I repudiate that. These authors quite often leave the ranch — and when they do they make cloddish comments about philosophy and metaphysics, making schoolboy errors in the process. So, unless these experts are multiply-credentialed to include philosophy, they have no special qualifications to understand what their data analyses and postulations mean metaphysically. In fact, they are amateurs at that…. no more qualified than you or I to make judgments as to meaning. This is why I will not consider the weight of a Ph.D. on any subject outside of its specialty — nor should you.

When I read your comment about bibliolatry, it reminded me of some comments made by William Lane Craig in his Defenders class. A student asked about Bart Ehrman and inerrancy. Craig has some insights into what might have happened with Ehrman. So, although the cause was not especially bibliolatry, Craig suspects that Ehrman was putting the wrong kind of pressures in the wrong kind of places when it comes to biblical inerrancy — and I heartily agree. So, since pixels do not cost anything, let me share that discussion from Reasonable Faith’s Defenders class. It is quite telling of Ehrman’s slide.

Student: Why has inerrancy and infallibility been such an obstacle to people such as Bart Ehrman for affirming the Gospel?

Dr. Craig: This is a very interesting question. Thank you. Many of you have heard of Bart Ehrman. He is an ex-evangelical who is now Professor at the University of North Carolina. I am told by an editor at Oxford University Press that he is the best-selling religious author with Oxford University Press. He is writing pop-ular book after popular book attempting to undermine the deity of Christ, the reliability of Scripture in many different ways. Even the existence of God. He pushes the problem of evil and so forth. I should say he became a Christian at about the age of 15 – about the same age I was when I became a Christian. He then went off to Moody Bible Institute and then he went to Wheaton College – the same school I went to – and studied under Gerald Hawthorne. He took Greek from the same professor that taught me Greek. Our biographies were so similar up to that point. I then went off to the University of Munich to do my doctorate in theology with Pannenberg. Ehrman went to the university of Princeton to do his doctorate in theology. While he was there he was working on a passage in the Gospel of Mark that seemed to be in conflict or inconsistent with other biblical passages in the Old Testament. It had to do with when Abiathar was the high priest. Ehrman was proposing all sorts of harmonizations and ways of getting around this. His professor said to him, Maybe Mark just made a mistake. Apparently for Ehrman this was just like the light dawning. He made a mistake. From that point on, he began to think the Scriptures aren’t inerrant. The whole house of cards just began to tumble for him. He was then on this slide that eventually led him into agnosticism.

What was the problem here for Ehrman that the admission of a single, trivial error in the Gospels would have such a devastating theological affect? I think this is very, very important. Our system of beliefs as Christians can be compared to a spider’s web which radiates out from a central point. These strands of the web represent different doctrines or affirmations that we as Christians believe. Some of these doctrines are more central to the web of belief. If one of these doctrines were plucked out, the reverberations would be felt throughout the entire web and the web might even collapse. But if one of these peripheral strands were to be removed, there would be little reverberation in one’s system of beliefs. It wouldn’t have much impact.

What are some of these central doctrines that are at the core of the Christian web of beliefs? How about the existence of God? That is pretty central. If you remove that from the web of beliefs, surely our faith would utterly collapse. Also close and central would be the deity of Christ, I think, which is why those who have denied Christ’s deity were condemned as heretics. Christ’s death on the cross for our sins would be near to the center. That would be hard to give up.

Less central would be doctrines like the doctrine of original sin, for example.[6] Although that is affirmed by Catholics and Protestants, in Defenders Series 2 we saw that Eastern Orthodox Churches don’t affirm the doctrine of original sin, and yet they are still Christians. The system still holds together. So if you were to remove that it would certainly cause some reverberations in the web of belief but it wouldn’t collapse in the way it would if you removed one of these central beliefs. Beliefs about the tribulation and the rapture, contrary to what some of our Bible teachers might think, is very peripheral to your web of belief. It is unfortunate that when Christians so focus on things like the rapture and tribulation that that becomes almost central to their web of beliefs. Doctrines about the sacraments and baptism and the real presence in the Lord’s supper are also nearer the periphery than the center.

The question is: where does the doctrine of inspiration lie? I think that the doctrine of inspiration lies somewhere out a ways from the center. If the Bible is not God’s Word to us and inspired, it would certainly cause great reverberations because now you would have documents that would simply be human historically reliable accounts of the life and teachings of Jesus. Christianity wouldn’t collapse. What C. S. Lewis called “mere Christianity” doesn’t hinge upon belief in the inspiration of Scripture. That wouldn’t show that God doesn’t exist. It wouldn’t show that Jesus Christ didn’t rise from the dead or that he didn’t die for your sins. If you gave up the inspiration of Scripture, that would be theologically very significant but it wouldn’t cause you to become a non-Christian. Christianity doesn’t depend on the inspiration of the Bible.

Even less so would be a corollary of inspiration which is inerrancy. Inerrancy is a derivative or a corollary of inspiration. If the Scripture is inspired then it is authoritative in all that it teaches. But there are lots of Christians who don’t believe in biblical inerrancy, and yet they are still Christians. The web doesn’t collapse. So I would say that the doctrine of inspiration is some place out here [pointing to a diagram on the whiteboard] and the doctrine of inerrancy is even a little more peripheral.

What was Ehrman’s mistake? Ehrman’s mistake, like so many Christians, is that for him the belief in iner-rancy lay at the very core of his web of beliefs so that when that single, trivial error was exposed to his thinking in the Gospels, his whole system of belief was threatened with collapse. I think that that is just a catastrophic misprioritizing of Christian doctrine. It is not true that biblical inerrancy is a doctrine that lies at the core of your beliefs so that if you gave it up it doesn’t mean that you would give up belief in God, in the deity of Christ, in his death on the cross for your sins, even in the inspiration of Scripture.

I think that is the difficulty for Ehrman. I think it is tragic. It didn’t have to happen. In the lives of many more scholars, I think often what happens is they begin to discover nuances, for example, in the way that I’ve described – “Wait a minute. This isn’t an error. The Gospels don’t need to be chronologically accurate in order to be inerrant.” Or “Paul didn’t teach that Christ is coming again in his own lifetime even if he be-lieved it. This isn’t part of the teaching of Scripture.” You see what I mean? But for Ehrman, he had this wooden, brittle understanding of inerrancy that was misplaced in terms of its theological priority. The tragedy is that then it collapsed.

You meet ex-Christians like this all the time. I remember sitting over in the Dogwood Room with a man who came in who was once a strong Christian leader, had now lost his faith, and become an atheist. Someone wanted me to talk with him. So I said sure. I said to him, “OK, lay out for me why do you think God does not exist?” He began talking about Old Testament errors and trivialities, like the number of the horses in Solomon’s stable. And I said, “Wait a minute. You are telling me you are an atheist because there are some discrepancies in these Old Testament documents? That doesn’t follow logically at all!” It was so difficult in talking to this man because he just couldn’t see that in order to believe in the existence of God and the resurrection of Christ, the deity of Christ, you don’t have to believe that 2 Kings is right about the number of horses in Solomon’s stable.

If any of you have been struggling with this sort of thing, or you know folks – children or grandchildren maybe – who have been, try to help them understand the place of biblical inerrancy in our web of beliefs and also to understand its subtleness. It is not a brittle doctrine. It is a nuanced doctrine that can survive these kinds of shaking experiences.

Read more: http://www.reasonablefaith.org/defenders-3-podcast/transcript/t02-07#ixzz4G6hJ9Toq4

Did you note Craig’s comments about what should be the logical response to a trivial error such as the one about Solomon’s horses? If a person indeed “has” Jesus Christ in any real sense of the term — in salvation, fellowship, the word, etc. — how could he flee all that over trivia?… I mean… that would be an absurd action for a truly saved person. That being said, only the Holy Spirit knows who is saved… certainly not I. But Ehrman’s Wikipedia biography betrays what I consider to be a weakness in his former Christian position — one that might have set him up for this tumble: he was a fundamentalist.

Ehrman became a fundamentalist Christian as a teenager. In his books, he recounts his youthful enthusiasm as a born-again, fundamentalist Christian, certain that God had inspired the wording of the Bible and protected its texts from all error.[1] His desire to understand the original words of the Bible led him to the study of ancient languages and also textual criticism. During his graduate studies, however, he became convinced that there are contradictions and discrepancies in the biblical manuscripts that could not be harmonized or reconciled. He remained a liberal Christian for 15 years but later became an agnostic atheist after struggling with the philosophical problems of evil and suffering.[1]


At this point, I must beg the indulgence of my editors, my questioner and my broader audience who have sympathy with fundamentalism. But — and broadly speaking — fundamentalists are more rigid than (plain old) evangelicals in their behavior, doctrine and exegesis. Now, this is not in itself a problem; people should stand firmly for what they believe. But there is a difference between taking a firm stand and a brittle stand… and too many believers confound brittleness for strength. To explain why this is a problem, let me establish a gradient by using the image of a slide-bar.

Let’s put the most extreme example of brittle inerrancy at the right end of the slide bar — which is King-James-Onlyism on steroids. This position understands inerrancy to reside in a certain edition of the English Bible. So, what was said in English… and the exact words that were used in English… and literalistic interpretation of those English words… that’s what’s inerrant. Now on the left side, let us place the document known as the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (1978). This document has almost 4000 words — and it qualifies what inerrancy means for people who have a properly basic understanding of how language works — like the standards for reading and writing and how exegesis should work under the normal pressures of word meanings. For instance, it states that inerrancy exists in the autographa (the original documents) rather than in any translation, the use of round numbers is not an error… things like that.

Please understand that I am not saying that either Ehrman or all fundamentalists are King-James-Onliests… but I need to establish a scale. You see, the more you take your stand on inerrancy towards the right — towards the brittle end — the more you defend unnecessary ground. For example, it is quite an unnecessary position to defend the English translation as inerrant; that’s an extreme position held by no credible exegetes… plus… it’s an extra job! So, if someone defeated that particular position, the defender would crumble in a heap… but not because God’s word was defeated. It would merely have been because a non-truth was revealed as such. What does this mean for Bart Ehrman?

Instead of forcing the Scripture through the rigid ideas of fundamentalist inerrancy, Ehrman should have adopted a more nuanced position — like the one codified in the Chicago statement. If he did, he would have been too tough to shatter as does a brittle block of granite under a single hammer blow. Instead, he would have been like the archer’s bow — absorbing the stress — and using it to fire at the heart of truth.

Why did Ehrman’s faith crumble? In my opinion, Ehrman, as a fundamentalist, had a skewed picture of inerrancy. As such, he had faith in his methodologies… which did not survive their shaking. If Ehrman had placed his faith in Jesus Christ rather than in his beliefs about inerrancy, he might still be with us… and it could be as simple as that: Ehrman placed his faith in the wrong things — his methodologies and himself.

(Mainsail Ministries articles often have a preamble where I discuss the thinking that went into them. These are called Monday Musings — and if you haven’t read the one associated with this article — consider doing so at the following link: 20160815 Why did Bart Ehrman flee Christianity?).

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