YOU MIGHT BE AS SURPRISED AS I WAS to hear evangelical Bible scholars describe the Society of Biblical Literature as the world’s greatest collection of atheists.
Actually, I heard some of my scholar friends say that about 20 years ago. I think they would say it even more so today, though I would love to be wrong about that.
The Society of Biblical Literature is an association of more than 8,000 of the world’s top Bible experts, professors, and academic leaders.
Bible experts as atheists? You betcha.
Sometimes, the more we study, the less we know. That’s because the more we study, the more we realize that there’s a lot more to it than we ever imagined.
We end up knowing more, but we feel like we’re losing ground.
It’s like having a dream about rushing to get somewhere on a bicycle that goes only backwards.
Or it’s like doing laundry in a hotel. You’re just beginning to get a handle on the stack of sheets and pillowcases when all of a sudden 10 floors of laundry come flying down the chutes, burying you.
Learning from an agnostic
I’ve been reading Misquoting Jesus by Bart D. Ehrman, who describes himself as an agnostic. If you ask him if there is a God, as comedian Stephen Colbert did, he would say he doesn’t know.
Yet he leads the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.
Frankly, I am reading his book with caution. It’s a little intimidating to read a book about Jesus by a really smart Bible scholar who says he isn’t sure there is a God.
What surprises me is what I’m learning.
Ehrman critiques the Bible in ways that other scholars can’t, but privately wish they could. Many scholars have ties to their denominational headquarters and, honestly, don’t have the freedom to be honest. I would ask you to trust me on that, because I know many Bible experts who are waiting for their denomination to catch up to them, theologically.
An agnostic’s intriguing critique of the Bible
Here’s an example of the critique that I find engaging.
Ancient copies of the New Testament often have seemingly minor differences.
A different word here and there.
Most ancient copies of the New Testament book of Hebrews say that “by the grace of God” (Hebrews 2:9 NASB) Jesus died for everyone. Those manuscripts use the Greek words chariti theou (grace God). A couple of other manuscripts say that Jesus died “apart from God,” using the Greek word choris theou (separate or without God).
Somewhere along the line, some scribe or editor made a change to one of those manuscripts.
“Is he [the scribe] likely to have created a phrase that occurs nowhere else in the New Testament (“apart from God”) or one that occurs more than 20 times (“by the grace of God”)?
Ehrman builds his case, explaining that there’s nothing wrong with reading the passage this other way. Essentially, Ehrman explains, the Hebrews writer is saying that God did not step into save Jesus.
“Apart from God” also seems to track nicely with Mark’s version of that moment in the Crucifixion when Jesus says, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34 NASB).
It can sound as though Jesus felt, in that moment, that he was “apart from God.”
Most Bible translations prefer to say that Jesus died “by the grace of God.” Ehrman argues they got it wrong. He says that the original manuscript more likely has Jesus dying “apart from God,” which sounds to me to be pretty much the opposite of grace.
Go ahead, read what unbelievers say
I see valid arguments on both sides of that debate.
That’s one reason I think it’s a good idea to listen to people outside the faith. In Ehrman’s case, he started out as a Christian and educated himself into an agnostic.
I don’t mean that in a nasty way. It’s just a statement of fact. Sometimes the more we Christians study the Bible and religion, the less certain we become about some of those things we grew up believing.
That’s the risk we all take. But I don’t think we have a choice if we chase the truth.
So I’d say go ahead and study away. And as part of your study, read what agnostic and atheist scholars have to say for themselves.
There’s a man I know who won’t do that. He says he’s settled on what he believes about the Bible, and he doesn’t want to think about it anymore.
How do you talk sense to a person who doesn’t want to think?