“Losing Faith: Who Did and Who Didn’t,” Biblical Archaeology Review
“Losing Faith: Who Did and Who Didn’t,” Biblical Archaeology Review

“Losing Faith: Who Did and Who Didn’t,” Biblical Archaeology Review

“Losing Faith: Who Did and Who Didn’t,” Biblical Archaeology Review 33.2 (Mar/Apr 2007): 50-57.

Lawrence Schiffman

Losing Faith: Who Did and Who Didn’t How Scholarship Affects Scholars Several media stories recently reported that Bart Ehrman, a leading expert on the apocryphal gospels and one of BAS’s most popular lecturers, had lost his faith as a result of his scholarly research. This raised a question for us that is not often talked about, but seemed well worth a discussion: What effect does scholarship have on faith? We asked Bart to join three other scholars to talk about this: James F. Strange, a leading archaeologist and Baptist minister; Lawrence H. Schiffman, a prominent Dead Sea Scroll scholar and Orthodox Jew; and William G. Dever, one of America’s best-known and most widely quoted archaeologists, who had been an evangelical preacher, then lost his faith, then became a Reform Jew and now says he’s a non-believer. The discussion took place in the offices of the Biblical
Archaeology Society on November 19, 2006, and was moderated by
BAR editor Hershel Shanks.

Hershel Shanks: Bart, how did your scholarship affect your faith? Bart Ehrman: First, I lost my fundamentalist faith because of my scholarship. Like Bill Dever, I have a fundamentalist background. I had a very high view of Scripture as the inerrant word of God, no mistakes of any kind—geographical or historical. No contradictions. Inviolate. My scholarship early on as a graduate student showed me that in fact these views about the Bible were wrong. I started finding contradictions and finding other discrepancies and started finding problems with the Bible. What that ended up doing for me was showing me that the basis of my faith, which at that time was the Bible, was problematic. So I shifted from being an evangelical Christian to becoming a fairly mainline liberal Protestant Christian. What ended up making me lose my faith was kind of related to scholarship: When I was at Rutgers University, I taught a course on the problem of suffering in Biblical traditions, where I dealt with issues of theodicy throughout different Biblical books, both Hebrew Bible and the New Testament—
Shanks: What is theodicy? Ehrmann:
Theodicy is the question of how God can be righteous, given the amount of suffering in the world. The issue as it’s usually put today is that if God is all-powerful and is able to prevent suffering, and is all-loving so that he wants to prevent suffering, why is there suffering? This problem isn’t ever expressed that way in the Bible, but Biblical authors do deal with the problem by asking: Why does the people of God suffer? In teaching this course, the thing starstruck me is just how different the answers are. Depending on what part of Job you read, you get one set of answers. If you read the Prophets, you get a different set of answers. If you read apocalyptic literature, you get still a different set of answers. This made me think more deeply about my own understanding of why there’s suffering in the world. Finally, because I became dissatisfied with all the conventional answers, I decided that I couldn’t believe in a God who was in any way intervening in this world, given the state of things. So that’s why I ended up losing my faith.

Shanks: I want to separate a couple of issues. You talked about how you, as a young person, believed in the inerrancy of the Bible, that every word was accurate and divine. I really want to separate that from what we’re talking about. Iss it fair to say that no one here believes in the inerrancy of the Biblical text?James Strange:
I think so. Yeah.
Shanks: Larry? Lawrence Schiffman:
Yeah, it’s fair. Inerrancy assumes a kind of literalism never adopted in Jewish tradition.
Shanks: Okay. That’s a different question from what I want to discuss. I want to discuss the second issue: What your scholarship has done to your faith. Faith, I take it, is not a rational thing that we arrive at, not an argument that we win. It comes from another source, and we’ve just heard what his scholarship has done to Bart’s faith. Jim, you’re a Baptist minister. Has your scholarship, your excavations and your archaeology deepened your faith? Or has it caused you to question it? Are you still a Baptist minister? Strangee:
Yeah, I’m still a Baptist minister. I don’t have a pulpit. The only thing I do every now and then is a wedding for someone—or a funeral. Maybe now it’s more funerals. [Laughs] I bury more than I marry. But to answer you more directly, I just don’t see the connection. My faith is not based upon anything like a propositional argument. When I indulge myself in all this scientific research and explication, I’m not doing anything about faith.
Shanks: What is your faith based on? Strangee:
My faith is based on my own experience—a good old Protestant principle.
William Dever:
Very Protestant.
It’s a form of existentialism.
Yes, it is. I love the existentialist philosophers. I love to read them, not because they’re giving me any testable facts. It’s because it’s like reading a really good poet. It does something to you that propositional truth never does.
Shanks: What do you mean by propositional truth? Stranger:
Propositional truth is like: There is a loving God that intervenes upon the earth. That’s a proposition. It’s testable or it’s not. If it’s not testable, then you can’t falsify it; you can’t know if it’s true or not. If it really is testable, then the way you test it is to start checking out a list of experiences people have—and suffering is a prime one human beings have in common. So you end up saying, I’ve tested the hypothesis and it is now wanting. Suffering tends to disconfirm the hypothesis.
Shanks: You say your faith is not based on this proposition?Strange:
That’s correct.
Shanks: What is it based on? Strange:
Based on my own experience with God. For a lot of people, this makes me sort of a mystic in a cave or

something. But I think it’s eminently practical and out there. I think that there’s as much reason to see the face of Godin someone like William Dever.
Hold on.[Laughter]
Shanks: Does this God of yours have any attributes? Strange:
I suppose so, but I’m not really much interested. If I’m passionately in love, I hardly ever want to discuss the attributes of the person I’m in love with. Or if I do, I wind up saying superfluous things for everybody listening. “She’s
.” “Can you give me some more information?” “Yeah, she’s
really wonderful
.” [Laughs] When you’re in this state, you don’t utter propositions.
Shanks: Would you say that your scholarship, then, has had really no effect on your faith? Strange:
Virtually none. I mean I have a wonderful intellectual time with my scholarship. I get the same existentialist thrill out of touching the dirt when I’m excavating as I do holding my wife’s hand.
Shanks: You love the earth that you’re excavating really? Strange:
Shanks: Does that have anything to do with your faith? Strange:
It has something to do with the center of my being. But I don’t know how to express that like a philosopher. I have a B.A. in philosophy, which doesn’t make me much of a philosopher. I grew up in east Texas, where the choices were you believed in the Bible literally or you didn’t believe in the Bible literally. That was it. I didn’t. So it’s my own experience with God that tipped me over on the other side. My best analogy is falling in love.
Shanks: Bart, do you have any reaction to what he says? Ehrmann:
Yeah, I do. It seems to me that Christianity—Christian faith—has always been grounded in certain historical claims, for example, about Jesus. One thing that scholarship did for me: It led me to question historical claims that Christians have made about Jesus.
Shanks: What historical claims? Ehrmann:
For example, that he was raised from the dead. That’s a historical claim. I mean either he was raised from the dead or he rotted in his grave. The kind of Christianity I was in believed in an active physical resurrection of Jesus. That was part of what it meant to be Christian. You had to believe that.
Shanks: Do you believe it, Jim? Strange:
I don’t believe
, but, yeah, I believe in something that means that Christ is alive, and our explanation of that is that there was a resurrection. I think I’m more or less untouched by the sort of literalist interpretation [Bart is talking about];resurrection is sort of a metaphor.
If Jesus hadn’t been crucified, if he grew up to be an old man and died and was buried in a family plot outside of Nazareth, then for me, when I was a Christian, that would’ve destroyed my faith. In other words, the faith is rooted in certain historical claims. As historical claims, they can be shown as either

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