Sam Harris Podcast with Bart Ehrman – Part 2 – Wooden Fundamentalism



This is a continuation of observations in regard to a podcast interview of self-described agnostic, New Testament scholar, Bart Ehrman, by the atheist, Sam Harris.  In the first installment, I focused on Ehrman’s personal story about “losing his faith” as he transitioned from high school to Moody Bible Institute to Wheaton College to Princeton Theological Seminary. Along the way, he went from fundamentalist to agnostic. In many ways, though, he never left his fundamentalist view of the Bible.

Ehrman says that he began to shed his fundamentalist views as he learned the original languages and began to read scripture in those original languages. He describes how his rigid, nonintellectual reading of the scriptures began to crumble as he discovered issues with the text that didn’t allow such a strict interpretation of a text considered to be inerrant.

As the interview progresses, Erhman relates that he used to believe in a literal rapture, alluding to the Book of Revelations read in light of 1st Thessalonians (being caught up in the air).[1]  Erhman comments that, “I not only believed in the Rapture, I knew it was going to happen in the late 80’s” (followed by a hearty guffaw).  He goes on to describe that his loss of faith was a long process, but the “rapture was one of the first things to go”.

This was Ehrman’s fundamentalism, but “the Rapture” is hardly a point of “doctrine” on which even fundamentalists (whoever they may actually be) agree, let alone the rest of believing world. The verses in the Bible from which the idea of a Rapture has been formulated are few, and they are wrought with difficulty in the interpretation, like the visions in Revelations and other apocalyptic writings. There are many interpretations[2], and the whole idea is quite ancillary to the central tenets of the faith.

A person certainly doesn’t have to believe in the Rapture or in any particular formulation of the rapture to believe in God or to have faith in Jesus Christ, but we often get the peripheral things inextricably intertwined with the essential things in our minds, and it’s hard to untangle them. When peripheral things begin to unravel in that case, they are likely to begin to unwind the essential things if we have bundled them too tightly.

This is a hallmark of a rigid and wooden fundamentalism. It’s an all or nothing way of looking at scripture, that cements secondary things into the primary framework of our belief system. We have to hold on tight to the whole thing to keep the faith. When we allow any part of it to come unraveled, it’s likely to unravel the whole thing. The issue isn’t with Scripture, however; the ishpoliersue is with the approach.

Erhman describes one of the early lines that he crossed in his journey away from faith.  At Princeton Theological Seminary, he wrote a 30-page paper on a passage in Mark, Chapter 2, in which Jesus references when David entered the temple and ate the consecrated bread “in the time of Abiathar the high priest…“[3]. The only Old Testament passage that corresponds with the description identifies Ahimelek as the high priest at that time.[4]  Erhman describes the contortions he went through in trying to reconcile the words of Jesus in Mark with the account in 1 Samuel.  He says his professor gave him an “A” on the paper, but asked, “Wouldn’t it be easier just to think that Mark made a mistake?”

Erhman says this “opened up the flood gates” when he realized that there might be a mistake in the Bible.  If it wasn’t all true, he surmised, that perhaps none of it was true.  Again, this is an extremely rigid and wooden approach to the Bible.  It’s an all or nothing approach that doesn’t allow any nuance, depth, or complexity that we actually see in reality. This is a problem with fundamentalism. Ehrman still reads the Bible through a fundamentalist lens. He just doesn’t believe it anymore.

We have difficulty reconciling certain scientific principles.  The theory of relativity, for instance, is hard to reconcile with quantum physics.  Yet, both seem to be true.  Even though we can’t reconcile them, we don’t throw either one or both of them out, which is what Bart Erhman has done in letting go of faith completely because of a difficulty Mark 2 and 1 Samuel 21 and other passages. (There are theories on how the passages may be reconciled.[5])

There is something within us that insists upon certainty in the things that we believe. In Erhman’s case, he went from the certainty of fundamentalist belief to the certainty of unbelief.  Some of us seem willing to hold uncertainty in tension when it comes to science, but we don’t have the same appetite for uncertainty when it comes to religious belief.  I wonder why?  Maybe it’s just a matter of where we choose to place our confidence.

Another interesting exchange takes place when Harris prompts Erhman with questions about what Jesus, himself, would have thought about his teaching.  Of course, Erhman must, then, presume to know what Jesus was thinking in order to answer the question.  That aside, Erhman that Jesus would have seen himself as Jewish, and not necessarily, as one introducing or preaching a new religion, which doesn’t seem far-fetched. From there, however, Erhman says that Jesus did not preach about his death and resurrection, that such an idea was something that only arose later and became a “Christian” divergence from Judaism.

For Erhamn to make this claim, he has to ignore all of the statements and gospels in which Jesus talks about his death and resurrection[6]:

“He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again.” (Mark 8:31)

“He said to [his disciples], ‘The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men. They will kill him, and after three days he will rise.’” (Mark 9:31)

“’We are going up to Jerusalem,’ he said, ‘and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will hand him over to the Gentiles, who will mock him and spit on him, flog him and kill him. Three days later he will rise.” (Mark 10:33-34)

Of course, Erhman has already assumed that the gospels were written late (after 70 A.D.) because of the statements about the destruction of the temple.  He doesn’t even entertain the idea that these were predictive statements, written years before the events happened.  He assumes they written after the destruction of the temple because he does not believe in miracles.  Jesus speaks of the destruction of the temple in various places:

“Jesus left the temple and was walking away when his disciples came up to him to call his attention to its buildings. ‘Do you see all these things?’ he asked. ‘I tell you the truth, not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down'” (Matt.24:1-8 NIV; see also Mk. 13:1-2 and Lk.21:5-6)

Erhman believes that these statements made by Jesus about his death and resurrection and destruction of the temple were trumped up by the followers of Jesus after the fact.  This flows from assumptions imposed upon the text that Jesus could not have predicted the events because predictions such as that are not credible.  In this way, Erhman glosses over and ignores all of the statements that Jesus made about his own death and resurrection and destruction of the temple, sweeping them all aside, using assumptions that he brings to the text.

This framework of disbelief is evident in most modern scholars who adopt a chronology of the New Testament writings that dates the Gospels after 70AD. For them, it is a given that they could not have been written earlier than the things they purport to predict.

Even if the writings were produced after the 70AD, that evidence, alone, would not require us to discount the statements, if the statements were made by Jesus (and not embellished later by his followers). The significance of those statements would surely have been heightened by the happening of the destruction of the temple, and that could explain the reason for recalling them and writing them down.

Before moving on, I note that people used to say the same things about the Book of Isaiah in the Old Testament because of the uncanny description of the death of the Messiah in Isaiah 53 and other places that matches what happened to Jesus. People once claimed that Isaiah was written after the death of Jesus because it could not have been predictive. That position went out the window with the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, including a scroll of the entire Book of Isaiah dating back before 200 BC.

I will move on to other observations in the interview of Bart Erhman by Sam Harris in future blog installments. What we see in Ehrman’s story is a shift from a believing fundamentalist to an unbelieving fundamentalist. Whereas, he once believed every word, taken “literally” (as he thought they should be taken); he now believes nary a word. Whereas, once he approached the Bible with a presumption of belief; he now approaches the Bible with a presumption of unbelief. His interpretative lens, however, remain as wooden as it ever was.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

[1] 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17 (“For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a loud command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ will be the first to rise. After that, we who are alive and remain will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will always be with the Lord.”)

[2] See Rapture in Wikipedia

[3] Mark 2:23-26 (“One Sabbath he was going through the grainfields, and as they made their way, his disciples began to pluck heads of grain. And the Pharisees were saying to him, “Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath?” And he said to them, “Have you never read what David did, when he was in need and was hungry, he and those who were with him: how he entered the house of God, in the time of Abiathar the high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and also gave it to those who were with him?” And he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath.””)

[4] 1 Samuel 21:1-6

[5] See for instance Ehrman on Abiathar: Is the Bible Ever Mistaken?; and cf. Ahimelek or Abiathar? and Studylight.org.

[6] While some scholars believe these passages may have been written in light of the events that had already happened there are many other statements of Jesus that do not suggest any post–event editing that indicate that he clearly anticipated his own death and the necessity of his death. See Did Jesus Predict His Death and Resurrection? by Craig Evans; See also DID JESUS PREDICT HIS RESURRECTION? by John Piper

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4 Comments on “Sam Harris Podcast with Bart Ehrman – Part 2 – Wooden Fundamentalism”


  1. […] but a very shallow idea of faith to begin with. In the second installment, I talk about a certain wooden fundamentalism that continues to be apparent in how Ehrman sees the Bible. It’s a kind of all or nothing approach. Previously, he accepted all of it; now he accepts […]

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  2. […] about Christianity. In those articles, I cover Bart Ehrman’s story about losing his faith, the fundamentalism that continues to color the way Ehrman reads the Bible and the dangers of social influence as a substitute for a deep, personal relationship with […]

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  3. […] We trace Bart Ehrman’s early fundamentalist experience through the “loss” of his faith and the fundamentalism that still informs Ehrman’s view of the Bible, albeit not from a believing position anymore. I explore some factors from Ehrman’s story that […]

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  4. […] his early induction to a fundamentalist Christian world and losing his faith. He talks about the issues with biblical interpretation that led him away from belief.  I provide some comment on issues that factor into loss of faith, and the most recent articles […]

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