See no evil: comments on the comments to the Bart Ehrman post

October 25, 2006 | By | 22 Replies More

My earlier post regarding Bart Ehrman was not meant to provoke in an outrageous way, although I suspected that it might distress some people.  That post drew much more traffic than we are used to at the site, approximately 25,000 unique visitors in three days.  It also pulled in more than 200 comments.  I was intrigued by the nature of the comments, especially those comments written by people who ostensibly disapproved of Ehrman’s work or his conclusions.  In fact, I did a small informal analysis based upon the comments posted by last night (I believe there were about 150 comments posted at that time).

I need to state at the outset that there were more than a few Believers among the commenters who appreciated and even applauded Ehrman’s work.  Some of these Believers specifically stated that even if Ehrman was correct, they could still believe in God and Jesus, they could still be good Christians and they found that Ehrman’s work had enriched their understanding of the Bible. My criticism of the distressed commenters is not directed toward these people.

Approximately 35 of the comments were written by people who appeared to be distressed or dismayed by Ehrman’s work.  Notably, only three of those commenters acknowledged the basic points made by Ehrman. 

What were Ehrman’s basic points?  That earlier manuscripts did not contain some information that was contained in some of the later manuscripts that were ultimately adopted part of “the Bible.” Therefore, the new material found in later writings was not written by the original authors of current Bible passages.  Therefore, many current versions of the Bible contain errors in the sense that they contain information that was added to (not originally part of) the writings of the original authors, as far as we can discern those writings.  Ehrman adds an important asterisk to the whole process.  We don’t have the original writings.  We only have copies of copies of copies of what might have been the original writings.  Therefore, those who claim that the Bible is inerrant are ignoring powerful evidence to the contrary, as well as numerous red flags.

It was clear to me that Ehrman was not arguing that people shouldn’t or couldn’t believe in God or Jesus as a result of the Bible being an imperfect work of human beings.  His target was the inerrancy crowd.  Bible thumpers.

I thought Ehrman’s work was well-written and important.  That’s why I wrote my “book report” regarding Misquoting Jesus. My post was essentially an invitation for people to take the time to read Ehrman’s book. 

I can’t imagine that there could be any problem with Ehrman’s methodology.  It was the same methodology that one can use today to determine that “under God” was not an original part of the Pledge of Allegiance.  “Under God” was not inserted in the pledge until the 1950s.  How can you tell this?  Earlier versions of the Pledge of Allegiance did not include the phrase “under God.”  Therefore, if someone were to state that the currently-used version of the Pledge of Allegiance were inerrant and faithful to the original writings, they would be wrong.  The Bible has the same problem.  The current version contains numerous discrepancies, compared to the original writings. 

I found it surprising that dozens of people, almost all of them expressing a strong faith in God, felt so threatened by Ehrman’s work and conclusions. Yet I was even more distressed then they were that so many of these people were unwilling to acknowledge the basic points of Ehrman was making.  Only a few people mentioned that they had actually read Ehrman’s work.  Not that that stopped them from becoming upset with Ehrman’s work and criticizing it.

There is no better way to determine whether a person is being dishonest or deceitful in argument than to note whether he or she has the courage and integrity to put the opponent’s best foot forward before attacking the opponent.  Almost none of the distressed commenters had the courage to put Ehrman’s best foot forward before attacking him.

What kinds of attacks were there, in lieu of legitimate critiques of his work?  There were threats that Ehrman (and those of us who found sympathy with Ehrman) were going to go to hell. There were claims that Ehrman (and I, and other commenters sympathetic to Ehrman) were immoral nihilists.   Ehrman was accused of simply regurgitating things that have been known for a long time, as though one who effectively restates previously known information is not doing a service.  Ehrman’s religious beliefs were questioned, as though his methodology and competency depended upon his religious orientation. Some commenters called Ehrman misguided or wrong, without taking the time to explain any problem with his methodology or highly detailed work (much of which is set out in Misquoting Jesus).  No one questioned Ehrman’s Greek proficiency. 

I found this intense criticism of Ehrman puzzling in that Ehrman’s methodology was not rocket science.  He took the time to master the Greek language, then meticulously compared and analyzed the content of biblical manuscripts.  There was no need for any mathematical equations!

Several of the comments attacked Ehrman’s suggestion that there are conflicting passages with regard to the timing of the Crucifixion relative to the Passover.  Fair enough, although I thought these attempts to harmonize this passage wrapped some of the commenters into the shapes of pretzels.  I couldn’t help but notice that none of the commenters defended the biblical assertion that the mustard seed is “the smallest of all seeds.”  That same passage additionally asserts that the mustard plant is “the largest of plants.”  Neither of these assertions is true.  The existence of this passage alone would appear to make the Bible errant. 

I am aware there are people out there that will harmonize this passage by claiming that Jesus was talking to local people about it local botany.  This is a classic tactic of people who are result-driven: switching from the general to the particular as it is serves to bolster one’s own arguments.  Another common tactic (used by some of the commenters) is claiming that some words are merely poetry whenever they don’t make literal sense.  Another tactic we saw in the comments was cranking up skepticism only when convenient.  We also saw commenters arguing that a commonsense burden of proof should be reversed whenever convenient.  People take these detours from truth gathering whenever they are motivated by results rather than the truth gathering process

Many commenters cajoled the skeptics to read passages of the Bible to prove that the Bible is completely true.  I doubt that these same commenters would recognize the existence of any other self-approving book anywhere in the world.  They make an exception for the Bible, providing it with what Daniel Dennett would term a “skyhook.”

I allowed the comments to take on a life of their own–they ran somewhat wild.  I approved almost everything that wasn’t horrifically long, not because I planned to do it this way, but because I am new at moderating comments in a conversation this intense and unwieldy.  I’ll need to rethink my approach to moderating comments to future vigorous debates to make sure that the comments are more often on point.

Despite these problems, I found this to be a fascinating discussion involving many people with a wide variety of personalities and backgrounds.  To everyone who participated, thank you for participating.  For those of you who were motivated by results rather than the truth-gathering process, you probably don’t know who you are (a topic for another day). That is the nature of result-driven argumentation.  See no evil.

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Category: Culture, Good and Evil, Language, Religion

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Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

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  1. Evil comments | Bestdamnawards | May 29, 2011
  1. hogiemo says:

    Erich, you are going to hell. Erich you are an immoral nihilist. But, there are many houses in the Kingdom of God and I love you as I love myself, as Jesus commands, and because you are my going to hell, immoral nihilist friend. Go with God.

  2. Deb says:

    It was fascinating to watch the comments explode to that post, sometimes fascinating in the way it would be to drive by a horrible car wreck would be. I have no objection to open discourse, but if the commentor is only going to 'preach' at me with no rational thought, I would rather they didn't bother. I don't think this blog is a place to find converts, whether to convert from believing to non believing or vice-versa. It felt like some people were doing just that. On the other hand, there were many, many comments that did appear to be pieces of the 'big puzzle.' I am appreciative of the many hours put into those thoughtful comments, and into the enormous job Erich had moderating those many comments.

    People of faith and people of non-faith alike should be asking themselves tough questions, and as you say, starting from their opponents' best arguments. I welcome thoughtful, insightful, and rational comments. I can hear the diatribes without point or logic somewhere else. Maybe in white house press conferences, for example.

  3. Erich Vieth says:

    A note to readers about Hogiemo: He attended a Catholic co-ed high school with me. One day, with his back to the chemistry lab door and no teacher presumable in vicinity, "Hogiemo" proceeded to paste cotton on his face, climb up onto a lab desk and pretend that he was Abraham Lincoln, reciting the Ghettysburg Address. Unbeknown to Hogiemo, a 65-year-old nun (our chemistry teacher) appeared in the doorway as he was mid-Address, in time to witness Hogiemo recite the second half of Gettysburg address. Once Hogiemo finally turned around and saw the nun (cotton still glued all over his face), he didn't know enough to be embarrassed. He simply said "Hello" to her.

    Hogiemo is likely convinced that I am a Believer and I am convinced that he is not–and all of that is OK

  4. Jason Rayl says:

    Boy, that one struck a nerve, didn't it? All those responses? Half of them frothing-at-the-mouth religious, almost half frothing-at-the-mouth religious libertarian. I was tempted a couple of times to respond, but thought I would just waste words in a cafeteria food fight. It is just as difficult to convince an atheist that there is a god as it is to convince a believer that there isn't. These are two positions that are mutually exclusive, regardless what moderates may try to assert. Dawkins has no patience for the attempts of many of his colleagues to mollify the religious. He says the problem with religion(s) comes about when they make "existence claims"–that such and such is this way because of xyz. When scientists come along and find out how they really came about, the two narratives conflict. Trying to change a metaphor is very much a changing of leopard spots.

    I'm all for planting a flag in the ground and declaring open season on lunacy of both stripes, but especially the pro "My god is Always Right" crowd. We've been being nice, and it hasn't worked, only handed them the Congress and the White House. Hence my little vent on The Real Issue. I don't care what they believe, but there are limits–must be limits–on what they expect me to do to accommodate them.

    Anyway, congratulations on Getting Their Attention.

  5. Erich Vieth says:

    This image from Pixwit captures my frustration with those who choose to rely on highly questionable ancient text rather than using their own intellect. Click here. 

  6. I suppose the answer would be to learn to hear from God yourself. Then you could determine if the version of the scriptures you were using was accurate. Of course, if you did not believe that God existed and did not believe there was any reason to seek communication with Him then you would not make the effort. Catch 22?

    http://www.gods-kingdom.org/Hearing/Default.htm

  7. Deb says:

    Why would an omnipotent God need my effort to speak to me? Why do I need to believe to hear? If I stick my fingers in my ears and hum, does that mean God can't speak to me? Are my fingers more powerful than God's voice?

  8. It does not matter how many times you say it, what matters is how many times they hear. Why don't you listen to __________ {put something in the blank that you do not listen to}. Because you do not expect communication from something you do not believe exists, much less is able to communicate. If you are too busy doing anything, including humming, you probably aren't listening. Why would you want to talk to someone who didn't want to listen?

  9. Jason Rayl says:

    Larry,

    This kind of reasoning quickly becomesx circular.

    "I don't believe god exists because he/she/it has never communicated with me."

    "You must not be listening."

    "But I was listening. Here here here and here. I listened carefully. I wanted to hear god, but there was nothing to hear."

    "You must not have really wanted to hear god, or you would have."

    "But I did want. There was nothing there."

    "You didn't want to. There is something there, but you really have to want to hear it."

    "How really is really?"

    "It's really really when you finally hear god."

    You see? It goes on and on. I was once told that I had never been a "true believer" because, really, if I had been, I would still be. There is no room given for the possibility that your side of the discussion is the one that's illusory. If you cannot deal in anything but tautologies, you have the wrong argument. You believe there is a god because you believe there is a god. Solipsism par excellence.

  10. grumpypilgrim says:

    Deb said, "Why would an omnipotent God need my effort to speak to me? Why do I need to believe to hear? If I stick my fingers in my ears and hum, does that mean God can’t speak to me? Are my fingers more powerful than God’s voice?"

    LOL! Nicely said!

    Dan adds: "This kind of reasoning quickly becomes circular."

    Indeed, Christianity was founded on circular reasoning:

    How do we know God exists? Because the Bible says so.

    How do we know the Bible is accurate? Because it is the Word of God.

  11. I am not appealing to meat brain reasoning, circular or otherwise. You can't prove that God exists that way. I am not trying to convert you or anyone else. I can tell you what I have learned, if you don't get it {my version}, it's no big deal. We are not saved by believing, we realize we are saved by believing.

    God can talk to you any time He wants to. And you will not hear Him before it is your time. Maybe you have been listening intently. You may be listening better than I do. Our salvation is not our doing, it's His. We like to think it's our choice, that we are in control of our destiny, that we are deserving of it, that we are better than so and so. Nope. We are all in the same boat. We are all going to be saved; time just keeps this from happening all at once.

    You don't have to believe anything I or any other christian tells you. Stay in denial as long as you can. Make every excuse possible, keep those digits in those ears to prove how much more powerful you are than God. Too many people join a religion believing this is what God wants them to do. Idolatry never helped anyone. Maybe you and I are not meant to be one who overcomes the world system in this age. Doesn't mean anything.

  12. Jason Rayl says:

    And there is the other shoe, that our suggesting that the silence is perhaps due to no one or no thing actually being there to hear becomes—wait for it!–DENIAL.

    On our part.

    When you reject the capacity of human intelligence and intellectual understanding to perceive and lay the claim that it is Beyond That or–what's that lovely description you used?–meat brain reasoning, which is inadequate, you do yourself, your conversant, and your own conception of god a disservice.

    That meat brain reasoning is the only thing we have. Since in your construction god gave it to us, why would it be inadequate to the task? And if in my construction there is no god, then denying the evidence of your own capacity to reason is the ultimate self abnegation.

    But I suppose you may be right. Doesn't mean anything.

  13. "You believe there is a god because you believe there is a god." "you do your own conception of god a disservice."

    How can you know this? Do you assume you already know everything I believe? Or do you believe the cause of my belief it's own existence? It's neat to be able to put words in people's mouths so you can ignore them, or at least to get them to shut up and crawl back under their rock.

    You are not interested in the cause of my belief or my conception of God. You have already decided there is no cause for it since there is no object for it other than my own conception.

    “I don’t believe god exists because he/she/it has never communicated with me.”

    “You must not be listening.” expand your mind ====> http://www.messianicdruid.blogspot.com

  14. It appears there is a word limit since a third of my post dropped out.

    I quoted "You must not be listening" to say these are not my words. I don't know if you are/were listening or not so I would not accuse you of not listening. continuing:

    “But I was listening. Here here here and here. I listened carefully. I wanted to hear god, but there was nothing to hear.”

    When did you decide there was nothing to hear?

    There is nothing to hear. I listened carefully and heard nothing. Therefore there is nothing to hear. {what was the fancy word you used?}

    "That meat brain reasoning is the only thing we have." You believe this. Maybe you could initiate communication by asking a question, and then listening.

  15. Jason Rayl says:

    Okay. Here's a question.

    You said: "I am not appealing to meat brain reasoning, circular or otherwise. You can’t prove that God exists that way. "

    Then how do you prove god exists (a) to yourself and (b) to someone other than yourself? If not through the instrumentality of reason, then how?

  16. Jason Rayl says:

    "How can you know this? Do you assume you already know everything I believe? Or do you believe the cause of my belief it’s own existence?"

    To be plain, you're making it fairly clear what you believe. And yes, judging from what you have already said, I do believe you belive because you believe. You said something close to that:

    "We are not saved by believing, we realize we are saved by believing."

    That's pretty circular. Maybe it's a language problem. Realizing we are saved by believing is not a refutation of the first point, that we are saved by believing. Adding that qualifier is either meaningless or an assertion that belief is its own source of actuality–hence, you believe because you believe.

    Under the circumstances, all we have to determine each others' thoughts are the words we use. The circularity of your argument continues:

    "God can talk to you any time He wants to. And you will not hear Him before it is your time."

    So trying to listen is pointless? We'll only hear god when god wants us to be heard? Which means we can't ignore him, poke fingers in our ears to shut him out, or, conversely, go look for him with any expectation that we'll find him? It's a shell game and god has full control of the shells–so if we fail to hear him, it's not on us, it's on him.

    Unless what you mean to say is that we have to be in a frame of mind to accept god before we can accept god, which means we have to already believe god is there. Hence, belief exists because of belief.

    Maybe it is a language problem. Maybe it's simpler in Aramaic, Greek, or Hebrew.

    Or maybe distrusting "meat brain reasoning" is a trap which only leaves one in a small room of mirrors and no way out.

    Einstein (referring of course to quantum mechanics, but I'll appropriate his phrase here) said "God does not play dice." So far, according to your formulations, he not only plays dice but the dice are loaded.

    Consider the possibility that what you are hearing are only the parts of your own mind that you do not consciously recognize as Your Self. Consider the possibility that what Yeshua meant was that god living in each of us means each of us is god–not in some supreme, all powerful sense, but in the sense that the spark of consciousness, of intellect, or the capacity to empathize and recognize ourselves in others is in a limited sense divine, and that all we need do is listen to our hearts to hear the thing which we call god.

    But that leaves us without a creator or a law-giver other than ourselves–and that means the responsibility for everything is ours.

    Doesn't mean the voices aren't there, just that the source is other than we might initially suppose.

    On the other hand…

  17. "It’s a shell game and god has full control of the shells–so if we fail to hear him, it’s not on us, it’s on him."

    Not a shell game; He has always had full control. And you are absolutly right it's not "on us" it's "on him" at least until a point in time. But you know there is a big difference between refusing to hear and failing to hear.

    Look, it's not my job to prove to you that God exists. Using the carnal mind for that is like measuring the orbit of the moon with a twelve inch ruler. The carnal mind likes to deify man and relegate God to a far-off country {if He exists at all}. This drives a wedge between man and the true God, while at the same time marginalizing God to the point where it was easy to begin thinking of man as the only relevant god {rulemaker}.

    Nietzche postulated a new race of supermen who were brave enough to face the world without using God as a crutch. They were too rational to need faith to fill the blanks where science was silent. God was dead. Reality was determined by science alone–and even then, only if it surgically removed God from all equations.

    A new scientific world that was being defined philosophically as a world that shunned and excluded its own Creator. Art and philosophy reflected it. Man-made religion reflected it. Political science reflected it, which paved the way for communism, naziism, and fascism.

    The irony: that man became both a god and a demon at the same time. Scientists and other learned men became the gods {rulemakers} upon the earth, while the ignorant masses were unenlightened beasts who must be governed by the scientific elite until such time that they too became enlightened. Education became a compelling reason for inequality, even while we fought a war to "make the world safe for democracy."

    Knowledge and education became the way of salvation out of the jungle of humanity into the privileged life of evolved gods. This has created a whole new tribalist mentality and provided more reasons to divide people into the camps of the ignorant and the educated, beasts and gods. From that dualistic perspective, "we" are the good, and "they" are the bad, and self-interest then rules the day.

    "Scientific religion" found its niche by discovering spiritual laws by which mankind could be perfected through knowledge and could thus evolve into higher beings by his own efforts. Man-made religion became the path by which man could evolve from animal to god, using Jesus as an example of this and stating with great certainty that He learned how to become the I AM by much intelligent study.

    Supposedly, Jesus spent years learning how to use the divine laws in order to do what appeared to be miracles. But these were not really miracles at all, they say. They were acts based upon science and knowledge. They advocate that we do the same pretending that God is not a Person but an impersonal Principle. We are taught that the earth evolved without God and that the laws of the universe–including spiritual laws–are simply "there" and had no first cause. Laws exist without a Lawgiver. These laws are therefore to be learned and exploited to make one healthy, wealthy, and wise. In so doing, one may evolve into a higher life form.

    Sin, too, was viewed as mere ignorance. Overcoming sin was removed from the Divine Court to the classroom. Jesus showed the way as a Master Teacher and even died for His beliefs; but He did not die as a Sacrifice to pay the debt which the law required. Scientific religion destroyed the primary purpose of Jesus' death on the cross, making His death unnecessary and tragic. He is, they say, to be honored only as an example of how one is willing to die for the sake of truth.

    There are indeed spiritual laws that should be learned. But when we attempt to expel God from His universe and make man a god, we attempt to attain prosperity, health, and miracles by the power of the meat {the carnal mind} mistaking the carnal mind for the spiritual mind. And we begin to think that we can save ourselves by scientific education and knowledge. This is its greatest illusion, your "hall of mirrors".

  18. Jason Rayl says:

    I think this will be my last response.

    Science is not and was never intended to be a religion. I will grant you that many people, both pro and con, go on and use it as such anyway. The uses to which people put the tools at their disposal is not the responsibility of the inventor of those tools. A serious study of science and its methods leads to the place where it ceases to have the function of religion. But those who merely acknoweldge science as the thing we currently believe it and don't both to understand it end up misunderstanding it and misusing it. Technology becomes the iconography of science.

    The phrase "save ourselves" is too vague and loaded to be useful. From what? For what? As what?

    Now it's the "carnal mind" instead of the "meat brain." Okay. But the 12-inch ruler is the ancestor of the laser that bounces off the moon and allows us to measure its distance. The arithmatic that is represented by the ruler is the ancestor of the calculus that allows us to plot the moon's orbit and predict its path. They are connected in a clear chain of causality that is easy to see. Products of the "carnal mind" as you put it.

    I think you want so badly for there to be something other than the meat brain, carnal mind–something occult (in the classic defintion of the word) that shields a truth to be revealed by some process outside of synpase and neuron that you underrate the Self in your skull. If you perceive god and all that that implies, it is through that very system of nerves and cells and acquired knowledge you seem to want to relegate to a status of spiritual blindness and deafness. I suggest you read Hume and go from there.

    My take on the history you give is not that we have found a substitute religion that will solve all our problems, but that this is a new phase of trying to figure out how to solve problems. Problems, by the way, that were never solved by nonscientific methods. It's a new tool. The responsibility for solutions is still the same as it always has been.

    I'm done. It's been interesting.

  19. I appreciate you Jason Rayl, we will meet again.

  20. Scholar says:

    Oh boy, I was so busy ranting at post 668 that I missed this one entirely. Granted, at the time I didn't know what "dangerousintersections" was. Also, I didn't expect to be back here, as I was just surfing netscape when I saw Erich's article 668. At that point I just kinda got mixed into (mixed myself into) the argument about the Bible being changed. My concern was that we had Christians arguing with Christians about a book which is supposed to bring them together. In hindsight, I could've just let them go at it. However, I do indeed want people (who are literate enough to log on to the internet) to know that some Americans, including *MOST* scientists believe that religion including Christianity, is complete bullshit.

    Of course that sounds a bit harsh, and should be countered with the fact that I do respect some of the world's ancient stories and ideology. For example, I pretty much agree with the "golden rule" of treat others as you would have them treat you.

  21. Karl says:

    The original Biblical message as recorded by sinful people has not lost the potency of its message.

    The understanding of the Biblical Text has been changing and will continue to change as many sinful people lose more and more of their self-centered ways and as history progresses towards the final resolution of these matters.

    In this regard not only has the Bible been "altered," but we all shall be changed in the twinkling of an eye when we are translated into the kingdom of heaven and eternity.

    Those who will refuse to change, well that's their own business, always has been, always will be.

    I'd rather dye to self in the temporal so that the transistion to universal consciousness doesn't seem like hell.

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