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

A rigid and wooden fundamentalism is an all or nothing way of looking at scripture that cements secondary things into the primary framework of our belief system.

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 Bible 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, “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 agree, let alone the rest of the 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. Many speculations have been suggested[2], but 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.

We often get the peripheral things inextricably intertwined with the essential things in our minds, and it’s hard to untangle them. This is the danger of placing too much importance on peripheral things, especially peripheral things with as little biblical support as the rapture: when the peripheral things begin to unravel, they are likely to begin to unwind the essential things if we have bundled them too tightly.

Rigid and wooden fundamentalism is brittle for that very reason. 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 tightly 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 issue is with the approach.

Erhman describes one of the main lines that he crossed in his journey away from faith.  At Princeton, he wrote a 30-page paper on a passage in Mark, Chapter 2, in which Jesus references David entering the temple and eating 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?”

The thought that Mark might have made a mistake “opened up the flood gates” for Ehrman.  If it’s possible that not every word of the Bible is true, he surmised, than none of it is true.

Again, this is an extremely rigid and wooden approach to the Bible.  An all or nothing approach doesn’t allow for any nuance, depth, or complexity that we actually see in reality. This is a problem with fundamentalism. If we don’t cling to it tightly enough, the whole thing crumbles and falls through our fingers.

This discussion also suggests that Ehrman still reads the Bible through a fundamentalist lens. The only difference is that he doesn’t believe it anymore. Is all our nothing a rational response, though?

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. We hold them in tension, looking for explanations that will reconcile them.

Bart Erhman’s rigid view of the Bible, though, didn’t allow for alternatives. He let go of faith completely because of a difficulty with 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. Why Ehrman dares to have confidence in knowing the mind of Jesus when he clearly has no confidence in the words of Jesus is curious at best (and maybe more arrogantly presumptuous to be frank).

That aside, Erhman asserts that Jesus would have seen himself as Jewish, and not necessarily as one introducing or preaching a new religion. I can buy that to a point, but then Erhman claims that Jesus did not actually preach about his death and resurrection. He claims that the idea of the resurrection was something that only arose later and became a “Christian” divergence from Judaism.

To reach this conclusion,  Ehrman has to ignore what the Bible text. For Erhamn to make this claim, he has to ignore all of the statements in the Gospels in which Jesus expressly talks about his death and resurrection[6], including the following:

“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 in them about the destruction of the temple.  He doesn’t even allow for the possibility that these were predictive statements, written years before the events happened.  He assumes they were 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, including the following:

“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 were not actual statements made by Jesus. They were trumped up by the followers of Jesus generations later.  This flows from assumptions imposed upon the text, such as an assumption that Jesus could not have predicted the events.

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 by 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 70 AD. For them, it is a given that they could not have been written earlier than the things they purport to predict. No amount of dissuasion can prevail because they believe they assume predictions are impossible.

Even if the writings were produced after the 70 AD, 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 match 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”; he now believes nary a word. Whereas, once he approached the Bible with a presumption of belief; now he approaches the Bible with a presumption of unbelief. His interpretative lens, however, remains as wooden as it ever was. In the next post in this series, I will talk about the cult of influence.


[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

[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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