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Jesus And The Hidden Contradictions Of The Gospels
DAVID BIANCULLI, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli of tvworthwatching.com, sitting in for
What is the story 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 bestseller, "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' 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
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' 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' 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' 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
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
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
Prof. EHRMAN: Yeah - no, that's a really interesting way to look at it because
the "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
BIANCULLI: Bart Ehrman, speaking to Terry Gross in 2009. More after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
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.
(Soundbite of laughter)
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 worshipping 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 an 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' final moments on Earth. There are different interpretations in the
Gospels about why Jesus died. You write that for Mark, Jesus' 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' 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 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 â
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' death is an
atonement for sin.
Instead, what they say is that Jesus' 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' death.
The thing that made them all Christian, I think, is that all of them thought
that Jesus' 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 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' 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
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.
(Soundbite of music)
BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Iâm 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
analyses 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 bestseller
âMisquoting Jesus.â 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, âThe Quest of the Historical
Jesus,â 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 doesnât mean heaven when you die. He actually means a kingdom
here on Earth. Thereâs going to be a kingdom thatâs going to be ruled by God as
opposed do these crummy kingdoms ruled by Rome, or whatever other power now.
Godâs kingdom will arrive. So this point of view is taught prominently in
Mathew, Mark and Luke, our three earliest gospels.
In Markâs 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 â 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
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, thatâs right, thatâs 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
didnât think there was going to be a long haul. So when people say that Jesus
was a great teacher of ethics, I think thatâs 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 â 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, youâll be on the right side
and youâll be able to enter into this good kingdom that Godâs bringing, because
if you disobey God and you're acting badly, youâre going to be destroyed when
this cosmic judge arrives.
GROSS: But I - you know, Iâve 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: Thatâs right. Thereâs a wide range of opinions about who Jesus
is. And in the last 20 years there have been people who've wanted â scholars
who have wanted to redefine Jesus so that heâs not an apocalypticist. But the
majority of scholars donât 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 thatâs sometimes given. The reason
Jesus wanted to reform society and support things such as the roles of women in
society and such is because he thought thatâs what the kingdom was going to be
In the kingdom thereâs not going to be inequality. Thereâs not going to
oppression. Thereâs not going to be war. Thereâs not going to be â 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 canât fulfill on it on Earth,
one should strive for this utopian ideal? Could you see it in a metaphoric way
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 â well, it didnât happen. And so Jesus wouldâve been
wrong. And some scholars are uncomfortable with the idea that Jesus could be
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' 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
whatâs 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 donât want to have Jesus say things that didnât 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 donât mean that
metaphorically. They think that Jesus, literally, is going to comeback. And I
think they had their predecessors in the first century.
GROSS: Iâm interested in what you think of the popularity of that point of
view. Thereâs the âLeft Behindâ series of novels, which have sold a remarkable
- I donât have the figures on hand, but, like, tens of millions of copies. And
thatâs a novel â 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, thatâs right. And, you know, the âLeft Behindâ series sold
far more copies than âThe Da Vinci Code.â
(Soundbite of laughter)
Prof. EHRMAN: As hard as that may be to believe, but in fact it did. And whatâs
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 everyone
of them bases it on their certain interpretations of the Bible â 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 didnât.
BIANCULLI: Bart Ehrman speaking to Terry Gross. More after a break. This is
(Soundbite of music)
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, youâve 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 youâve 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 wouldâve 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 name Bruce Metzger, happened to teach there. Princeton Seminary - the
faculty there - did not share the view that the Bible was the inerrant word of
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 PhD 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 werenât 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 couldnât reconcile all of these discrepancies. And you
know, many of them are just quite clear contradictions - some of the ones we
havenât 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 â "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 donât know what the original text is, that because of that
I become an agnostic, which is not just wrong but a little bit crazy.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Prof. EHRMAN: I mean. I didnât become an agnostic because I realized that there
were differences in our manuscripts. And in fact, I didnât 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 itâs not that they gave an inerrant revelation but they had insights
into the truth and they had different insights into the truth. So that Markâs
views were different from Matthewâs because Mark had a different perspective
than Matthew. And I came to think that you canât just reconcile the two because
that - when you reconcile Matthew and Mark and pretend theyâre saying the same
thing, then youâre 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
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, âGodâs Problem,â 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. Youâre now an agnostic. You used to believe in
heaven and hell, which is quite a motivator.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Prof. EHRMAN: Yeah.
GROSS: And also, if you believe youâre going to heaven, thatâs 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: Thatâs 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 didnât descend from heaven one day soon after Jesus'
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 werenât 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. Iâd
have no moral compass. And I thought that that would probably lead to become a
completely licentious reprobate.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Prof. EHRMAN: But as it turns out, thatâs 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 weâd 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, itâs great to talk with you again. I really
appreciate it and thank you so much.
Prof. EHRMAN: Okay, thanks for having me.
BIANCULLI: Bible scholar Bart Ehrman speaking to Terry Gross last year. His
book, âJesus Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible,â is
now available on paperback.
*** TRANSCRIPTION COMPANY BOUNDARY ***
'Green Zone': Bourne In Baghdad, Looking For WMDs
DAVID BIANCULLI, host:
British director Paul Greengrass has filmed two of Matt Damon's "Bourne
Identity" movie thrillers, but he's also worked with more fact-based material.
He directed the 2002 film "Bloody Sunday," which used documentary techniques to
recreate an infamous Irish civil rights protest; and in 2006 he dramatized
another real life incident in "United 93." Now he and "Bourne" star Matt Damon
have collaborated again, this time on "The Green Zone," a fictionalized story
inspired by accounts of the early occupation in Iraq.
Film critic David Edelstein has this review.
DAVID EDELSTEIN: War films don't come much more political than "The Green
Zone," which given the star, Matt Damon, the director, Paul Greengrass, and the
paranoid conspiracy plot, could easily have been subtitled "The Bourne
Bushwhacking." The script, by Brian Helgeland, is credited as inspired by
former Washington Post Baghdad bureau Chief Rajiv Chandrasekaran's "Imperial
Life in the Emerald City."
That book chronicled what he saw as a series of disastrous, politically
motivated decisions in the occupation's first year by Coalition Provisional
Authority head L. Paul Bremer â decisions that helped spark the insurgency.
"The Green Zone" turns that thesis into a tumultuous, enraging and occasionally
tawdry melodrama. It's a mixed bag, but you can't say Greengrass and Damon
don't take a stand.
Damon plays a fictional character, Army Chief Roy Miller, commander of a team
of heavily armed weapons inspectors. They move from site to site, searching for
WMDs that are supposed to be there, guaranteed to be there, but aren't there;
and meanwhile they're under fire from Iraqi snipers. As in Greengrass's Bourne
movies, the hand-held camera shimmies and swerves, using a jittery battlefield
documentary style to drive home the idea that this is real and to trigger your
fight-or-flight instincts. So after all that sweaty combat maneuvering, when
the team comes up empty, you're almost as frustrated as they are.
At a big meeting, Damon's Miller distinguishes himself from the other officers
by calling the bad intel question.
(Soundbite of movie, "Green Zone")
Unidentified Man #1 (Actor): (as character) Yeah?
Mr. MATT DAMON (Actor): (as Roy Miller) I had a couple questions about the
intel for tomorrow. Are we sure this is accurate?
Unidentified Man #1: (as character) It's solid. It's good to go.
Mr. MATT DAMON: (as Roy Miller) What's the source?
Unidentified Actor #1: (as character) Well, it's a human source intel. But it's
solid. It's current as of zero-four-hundred.
Mr. MATT DAMON: (as Roy Miller) Was it the same - same source we've been using
on - every site weâve hit on the way up here weâve rolled a doughnut.
Unidentified Actor #1: (as character) Chief, how about we do this, let's talk
off line. Give me a list of the places where you went and grids and we'll make
sure that you had the right information written down and that you went to the
right places, okay?
Mr. MATT DAMON: (as Roy Miller) Captain, the issue isn't the grid, sir. The
issue is that there's nothing there.
Unidentified Actor #1: (as character) Stand down, Chief. We need to move on
Unidentified Actor #2: (as character) Hold on, hold it a second. Let's hear
what the Chief has to say.
Mr. MATT DAMON: (as Roy Miller) Okay, sir, I'll give you an example. We rolled
into a site, Diwaniya, last week, okay? 101st took casualties securing it for
us. We got in there and found it was a toilet factory. I'm saying there's a
disconnect between what's in these packets and what we're seeing on the ground.
There's a problem with the intelligence, sir.
EDELSTEIN: "The Green Zone" is full of scandalous details from Chandrasekaran's
book, among them a would-be Iraq ruler clearly based on Ahmed Chalabi and here
portrayed as a charlatan and U.S. puppet. As in the book, the key bad decision
â the game changer â is the move to disband the Iraqi military and outlaw
Saddam's Baath Party, thereby leaving a lot of enraged men with easy access to
In the film, a seasoned CIA hand played by Brendan Gleeson foresees civil war
down the road if that happens, and he and Damon's Miller try to amass their own
intelligence to head off their superiors.
Unfortunately, Greengrass and Damon were under pressure to deliver an action
movie â and not one like "The Hurt Locker," in which the enemy is unseen and
the military feats are presented in a high-pressure vacuum. A bespectacled Greg
Kinnear plays a figure meant to be Paul Bremer, but he's not just a political
tool; he's a government-empowered gangster straight out of a Bourne movie. And
pretty soon Bourne â I mean, Miller â is racing through the streets of Baghdad
to prevent an assassination, and then he and an Iraqi guard are duking it out
with the camera in tight and the soundtrack reverberating with the crunch of
It's not that it's badly done; it's that it's so much like "24"'s Jack Bauer
heading off yet another evil plot that even the biggest conspiracy buffs will
find it tough to swallow. In the Greengrass zone, there's no time or space for
the quiet revelation, the offhand but crystalline detail that transcends the
melodramatic agenda. There's a lack of imagination in his work.
It's only Damon's good, low-key acting that keeps the final twist involving a
Baathist general and a reporter played by Amy Ryan from seeming as preposterous
as it is. Ryan's Lawrie Dayne, clearly modeled on The New York Times's Judith
Miller, is rattled by the thought that she'd been fooled by a Pentagon-staged
farce involving a top-secret informant â a marked contrast to the real Miller,
who always defended her reporting as being based on credible sources. Even if
you believe the movie's interpretation of events, the techniques are
BIANCULLI: David Edelstein is film critic for New York magazine.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.