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Bart Ehrman, Biblical Criticism, and Mormons

By: David G. - March 28, 2009

I suspect the FPR folks will accuse me of poaching a post from them, but this has popped up twice now in my email account, and I think it’s interesting. It comes from an interview with biblical scholar Bart Ehrman, who grew up as a biblical literalist, went to bible school, and after years of studying the differences in the variant manuscripts of the New Testament, embraced agnosticism. In the interview, Ehrman mentions Mormons:

Do people contact you, e-mail or send you letters, and say, I really wish I’d known this? Do they say they’re going through some doubt themselves? Do you get personal response like that?

Tons. Just before you came, I read about six letters from people. Here’s one from a guy who had a very similar experience to what I had, went to Moody Bible Institute and then went to a Presbyterian seminary and lost his faith and became an agnostic. And he’s written me a four-page hand-written letter. He left his e-mail address. Frankly, I don’t answer snail mail because I just don’t have time, but I get dozens of e-mails every day and I answer just about every e-mail except for e-mails that are antagonistic I get a lot of people who have a similar spiritual journey who are interested in hearing somebody speak out about it. I get people who tell me they’re sad to hear that I’ve lost my faith and they want me to change my mind. I get a lot of e-mails from people who agree with me, with what I say about the New Testament, but if I would just join their religion I wouldn’t have these problems. Those people tend to be either Muslim or Mormon. [Laughs.] A couple days ago I got something from somebody who was Baha’i who thought I should join the Baha’i faith.

I assume Ehrman is referring to Mormons who write in saying that we as Mormons believe in the bible as far as it is translated correctly (ergo, there can be differences in the manuscripts, but that’s explainable), but as a friend of mine who is both Mormon and a Hebrew Bible student at TCU mentioned to me recently, contemporary Latter-day Saints seem to be moving more in the direction of literalism at the folk level. I seem to recall that Mauss argued similarly in The Angel and the Beehive. I also remember that  Robinson made some statement about how he believes all of the bible literally, but matt b. will have to help me out there.

Am I reading Ehrman right? Or are there other ways to interpret what he’s saying? Judging from the anecdotal evidence that we have, are Mormons just paradoxical in our approach to the bible, vacillating between seeing the text as literal and seeing it as flawed, depending on the context?

For the complete interview, click here.

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28 Comments

  1. I think that interview was also included in the paperback version of his book Misquoting Jesus. Ehrman is making a fortune producing popular books containing basic biblical studies ideas. I have met lots of Mormons who think that they love Ehrman because he makes the point that the New Testament texts that we have now were tampered with by a group of “proto-orthodox” Christians who bent the texts to meet their own needs and eventually won the battles and earned the right to define orthodoxy and heresy. The problem is, these Mormons don’t finish reading Ehrman and fail to follow him to the end of his argument. I think it is very difficult to argue that Mormons, by and large, come to the bible with assumptions that are shared by more confirmed literalists and not shared by most biblical studies scholars (like Ehrman). For example, the assumption that the gospels reflect eye witness testimony, that the events described in them actually happened, that there existed during the time of Christ a discrete ecclesia that could be identified as “original” Christianity, etc.

    Comment by SC Taysom — March 28, 2009 @ 11:24 am

  2. In How Wide the Divide, Robinson makes the case that the 8th Article of Faith is the functional equivalent of the 1978 Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (pp 56-57). This surprised me, and frankly made me wonder if Robinson has actually read the Statement; it maintains, for instance, that the Bible is both inerrant and infallible, that the most literal and historical reading is the best one, and that Scripture does not contradict itself. These three things – literal, inerrant, and infallible – are not necessarily the same concept, but the Chicago Statement maintains they go hand in hand. It does hold these things to be true only for the original autographs, and acknowledges that translations are necessarily flawed. Even with that caveat, however, the Statement presumes that scripture should be approached with the assumption that it is L, I&I.

    That’s the part that Robinson likes, though I think he goes on to interpret the Statement more loosely than most inerrantists would be comfortable with.

    Anyhow, that he makes the connection at all is, I think, surprising. Mormons have traditionally held to what Barlow, I think, called ‘naive infallibility;’ that is, we have accepted the claims of Scripture simply because it didn’t occur to anybody not to. At the same time, however, there was a fairly wide range of interpretation about, particularly, the creation claims of Genesis a hundred years ago.

    It’s been in the past seventy to eighty years that Mormons have come into contact with the particular hermeneutics of fundamentalist Protestantism – prooftexting, prophetic typology, and so forth – and that’s, I think, drawn us closer to their camp.

    Comment by matt b — March 28, 2009 @ 11:34 am

  3. Apparently Mormons never miss an opportunity to proselyte famous people. Not everyone can be as successful as the guy who converted Steve Martin though…

    Comment by Jacob J — March 28, 2009 @ 12:13 pm

  4. “I’m suspect the FPR folks will accuse me of poaching a post from them” Ha! That’s exactly what I thought when I saw the title :)

    There are several Mormons currently studying NT with Ehrman, so I assume he has some basis for evaluating LDS beyond the letters he gets.

    I think many Mormons do have more literalist or traditional assumptions, but I’m also quite surprised how many do not. Or at least, are willing to consider those assumptions not as a requirement of LDS orthodoxy or faithfulness when shown that those assumptions are largely unsupportable.

    Comment by Nitsav — March 28, 2009 @ 1:03 pm

  5. This is indeed interesting, David. In what context are you receiving these emails? Are these the mass Mormon emails that get forwarded around in order to build faith and show what a great job we’re doing spreading the gospel? Or is this something different?

    I’ve liked Ehrman for a while now, but it has nothing to do with his views on the bible and its history. Rather, I just really enjoyed his interview a few years back on the Colbert Report, where he has some fun with the suggestion that agnostics are just “atheists without balls.”

    Comment by Christopher — March 28, 2009 @ 1:32 pm

  6. I agree with Barlow that Mormons are naively literalists. Many approach scripture with literalist assumptions, but those assumptions for the most part are not accompanied by a very public emphasis on literalism as a tenet of our faith (as I imagine happens in Protestant circles such as the one Ehrman grew up in). So many Mormons are literalists without it being a central tenet, and therefore, as Nitsav suggests, have little problem when shown that those assumptions are untenable.

    Chris, no, this wasn’t a mass email. Rather, it was a Google Alert automated search for “Mormonism.”

    Comment by David G. — March 28, 2009 @ 1:58 pm

  7. I do think that Mormons at least potentially have the resources to survive graduate school in biblical studies with their faith intact in some areas where Evangelical Christians (such as Ehrman originally) have a greater vulnerability. And a lot of that has to do with the fact that we do not have a formal commitment to scriptural inerrancy. Sure, lots of GD students assume such a view unthinkingly, but it’s not church doctrine, no matter Robinson’s personal opinion (which I reject).

    I remember after my Documentary Hypothesis article came out, I heard from a friend who was in grad school in Florida. He and his Mormon colleagues found the article helpful in negotiating their classes. In contrast, the faith of their Evangelical friends in the program was just getting hammered. One kid was counseling with his pastor on a daily basis trying to deal with what he was learning in grad school. My friend tried to share the perspective that the Bible can be valuable without being inerrant, but since his whole faith complex was tied up with inerrancy he refused to consider such a position.

    So I suspect that some of the Mormons who have written to Ehrman have that kind of a dynamic in mind.

    Comment by Kevin Barney — March 28, 2009 @ 8:43 pm

  8. Kevin, I think you are correct. I also know that in many cases it hits LDS grad students very, very hard. My experience bears out your basic argument and the LDs students often bend, sometimes a lot, but they break less often than some counterparts.

    Comment by SC Taysom — March 28, 2009 @ 9:24 pm

  9. I should clarify, as does Ehrman in the interview, that it wasn’t necessarily confronting the problems associated with inerrancy that caused him to lose his faith. It caused him to switch from being a fundamentalist to being a mainliner, but what caused him to lose his faith was the bible’s failure to answer the question of why people suffer.

    On another note, Ehrman seems to talk about his most recent book using much of the same language as Grant Palmer in An Insider’s View. In particular, they both seem to be arguing that scholars know that the founding stories are bunk (or at least that the historical documentation is highly problematic) but that doesn’t get through to ordinary people. Can someone who is more familiar with both Ehrman and Palmer comment on the similarities between the two?

    Comment by David G. — March 28, 2009 @ 9:28 pm

  10. I don’t know enough about the Palmer situation to offer a coherent comparison, but I can tell you that Ehrman has grown increasingly pointed in his assault on conservative views of the Bible. His last two books in particular have what I would argue is a bit of a polemical edge that I find off-putting, even though I basically agree with his arguments about the development of the NT. I think that his earlier books, especially Lost Christianities and The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture, are among the finest I read in graduate school in any of the fields I was studying.

    Comment by SC Taysom — March 28, 2009 @ 9:32 pm

  11. David, thank you for posting this. Your question of contextual duality is a particularly interesting one; Ehrman seems to speak to that some in his full interview. I might perhaps piggyback on your post and write a longer response because this is a particularly relevant issue for me right now.

    Comment by Elizabeth — March 28, 2009 @ 11:27 pm

  12. That would be awesome, Elizabeth.

    Comment by David G. — March 28, 2009 @ 11:29 pm

  13. matt b., if I recall correctly, almost every FARMS reviewer of Robinson’s HWTD has harsh words for his love affair with the Chicago Statement on Inerrancy. Does anyone who’s spent more than 5 seconds about these issues agree with Robinson?

    AB

    Comment by Aaron Brown — March 29, 2009 @ 2:09 am

  14. Poacher! :)
    I’ve heard this quote from him before, and incidentally from at least one other NT professor. I think Mormons just tend to see anyone dissatisfied with their religion as potential converts.

    Comment by TT — March 29, 2009 @ 7:47 am

  15. taysom, thanks for the hat tip. i looked over his current books, and they seemed mostly like stuff written for Oprah and the fat guy that spun off from her with a PhD in treacle.

    I will try to make some time to read those two earlier books you mention.

    Comment by smb — March 29, 2009 @ 8:34 am

  16. Entirely possible, Aaron. I generally don’t read the FARMS Review, alas.

    Comment by matt b — March 29, 2009 @ 9:48 am

  17. For the reviews of How Wide the Divide in the FARMS Review, see volume 11 no. 2.

    The one that I recall taking particular issue with Robinson’s acceptance of the Chicago Statement was Blake Ostler’s piece, “Bridging the Divide.” I agree with Blake.

    Comment by Kevin Barney — March 29, 2009 @ 12:09 pm

  18. Oops, make that “Bridging the Gulf.”

    Comment by Kevin Barney — March 29, 2009 @ 12:10 pm

  19. Piggybacking on Kevin’s comments, I personally think that the reviews of How Wide the Divide in the FARMS Review were more interesting than the book itself (although the very existence of HWTD in the first place is of some significance to be sure). I think Blake’s review was especially good.

    As for LDS students entering grad school in biblical studies (or religious studies more generally), I think I would foremost suggest that they find other Mormons who have already navigated some these waters to talk with about their concerns or what to expect in grad school before they dive right in all on their own. I personally struggled a lot at times because I didn’t have any support network. I think I would have benefited greatly at times had I just had someone to give me a little guidance. I wrote about this a while back at FPR here:

    http://www.faithpromotingrumor.com/2008/03/the-yoke-of-biblical-fundamentalism-meeting-higher-biblical-criticism/,

    I should really do my promised follow-up post, because I think this is an important topic of discussion for LDS students planning on attending grad school in biblical studies.

    Best wishes,

    TYD

    Comment by The Yellow Dart — March 29, 2009 @ 2:05 pm

  20. TYD, good point, having people who have gone through the wringer already to mentor you has got to be invaluable. Now that there is a solic critical mass of LDS grad students in biblical studies, one would hope that it would be easier now for people to make those kinds of connections than it used to be when there were very few LDS pursuing such study.

    Comment by Kevin Barney — March 29, 2009 @ 3:15 pm

  21. It seems to me that the standard Mormon position isn’t “literalism” (which is a horrible term to use for the position). Rather it’s more that the text should be given the benefit of the doubt. So the burden of proof isn’t on the text as being what it purports to be but on those arguing against such straightforward readings. It seems to me that Mormons are very open to there being errors or later accounts of what happened earlier. (i.e. look at the Book of Mormon which was largely written centuries after the fact by Mormon)

    I think people conflate the burden or proof issue with literalism or inerrancy.

    Comment by Clark — March 30, 2009 @ 1:10 pm

  22. To add, I’d also say many Mormons are skeptical of arguments which purport to show a passage as problematic. Especially those that do so on the basis of someone’s ethical theory. But I think that in theory we are pretty open to scriptures being collaborative efforts by later editors. In practice, as others noted, the way people read scripture is naively literalist. But that’s more simply because they don’t know the other arguments against literalism in a passage rather than some philosophical adoption of literalism. When arguments are presented (especially in a faithful manner) I don’t think very many Mormons have much trouble with reading passages in a different way.

    The obvious example for this is FARMS which frankly doesn’t read texts in an inerrant or literalist way. (Even those who’ve published at FARMS and adopted a strict translation theory are far more open about the content itself)

    Comment by Clark — March 30, 2009 @ 1:16 pm

  23. [...] Bart Ehrman, Biblical Criticism and Mormons [...]

    Pingback by Ehrman : Mormon Metaphysics — March 30, 2009 @ 1:17 pm

  24. Regarding Robinson’s discussion of scripture in How Wide the Divide, there is a mistake in the book that has created quite a bit of confusion. Whenever Robinson is referring to the “Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy” he is actually referring to a one sentence statement by Paul D. Feinberg. Feinberg’s statement is not part of the Chicago Statement. It is not a sentence from the Summary Statement, the nineteen Articles of Affirmation and Denial, or the accompanying Exposition. None of these portions were the topic of substantial discussion in the book, if discussed at all. Indeed, as several reviewers of HWD have pointed out, many of the actual articles of the Chicago Statement directly contradict Robinson’s own views on, for example, revelation, an open canon and the role of prophets. In fact, every time Robinson seems to be quoting from the Chicago Statement, he is in fact quoting Feinberg. The phrases “when all facts are known,” “in their original autographs,” and “properly interpreted” are not quotations from the Chicago Statement, but from Feinberg, even though Robinson mistakenly attributes them to the Chicago Statement. (p. 56).

    The confusion may have occurred when Blomberg described Feinberg’s statement as an “abbreviated version of the [Chicago] declaration” (p. 35) but it’s hard to see how Feinberg’s one sentence is an abbreviated version of something containing a Summary Statement, nineteen Articles of Affirmation and Denial, and accompanying Exposition. Blomberg breaks down Feinberg’s sentence into five qualifications in order to frame a discussion about “Scripture’s truthfulness.” Robinson at times refers to the “common parameters” or “similar parameters” or “five qualifications” of the Chicago Statement. However, there are no “five qualifications” of the Chicago Statement and Robinson is actually referring to Blomberg’s elucidation of Feinberg’s one-sentence statement. It’s clearly a mistake that has created confusion and invited misunderstanding.

    In the book, Robinson is attempting to draw a parallel between the eighth article of faith and the five qualifications as explained by Blomberg, not the entire Chicago Statement. Robinson’s purpose was to illustrate to Evangelicals that they should not be offended by the eighth article of faith qualification on the bible being true “as far as it is translated correctly” when Evangelicals themselves place several qualifications on “Scripture’s truthfulness,” namely the five qualifications as explained by Blomberg. Seen in that light, the qualification in the eighth article of faith pales by comparison and should not raise serious objections. This is the kind of dialectic that Robinson is using. In fact, had the discussion been about the actual articles of the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, Robinson may have found Article X quite useful to his argument. There, the framers state: “We further affirm that copies and translations of Scripture are the Word of God to the extent that they faithfully represent the original.”

    In Are Mormons Christian? Robinson points out that one of the problems with inerrancy is that it precludes an open canon and makes further revelation redundant. In his entry in the Encyclopedia of Mormonism “Doctrine: LDS Doctrine Compared With Other Christian Doctrines” Robinson states, in part, “Mormons deny both biblical inerrancy and sufficiency.” He notes in HWD that “Words like inerrancy, plenary and infallible are not scriptural, nor are they part of the LDS vocabulary.” (p. 205, ft 5). This leads me to believe Robinson was focusing on, and responding to, Blomberg’s discussion on scripture and not agreeing to endorse or to become a signatory to the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy. A more sensible reading is that the authors recognize that there are parameters of scripture not shared between them, and not in common, but that they can agree with those parameters that they do share. (p. 195). Indeed, Blomberg expressly states areas of inerrancy where he and Robinson differ (p. 200, fn 8). Robert Silvuka contrasts the authors’ stated views and provides other examples of where Blomberg and Robinson probably possess different understandings of inerrancy. See Robert M. Sivulka “Similar yet Different,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, 31, no. 3 (1998): 196-98.

    Most reviewers recognized that Robinson wasn’t advancing a fully developed inspiration theory, though reviewers wished that he had done so. In the chapter on scripture, I think his main goals were to place the eighth article of faith in perspective for Evangelical readers and defend an open canon. For his part, Blomberg doesn’t dwell a lot on inspiration theory other than to clarify misunderstandings about it and explain, among other things, that “No reputable Evangelical scholar or theologian believes in divine dictation for more than a tiny fraction of Scripture” (p. 37). This is clearly an area where further thoughtful dialogue and discussion might prove beneficial.

    Comment by aquinas — April 2, 2009 @ 8:33 am

  25. I very much like Barlow’s “naive literacy” description. There is a dance between literal and metaphorical interpretation that LDS members seem to be fairly good at IF they know about it. I have been a volunteer in the CES program for about 2 years now and have found that in my experience many people (both seminary and institute age) are excited about discussing theories that resemble theories based on academic biblical criticism. I have “tested” certain things out time and time again (with nervous anticipation) only to be surprised that many of my students are extremely interested in pursuing those lines of thought. (Of course, I get a minority who have stopped coming to my class.) However, my overall experience in teaching some of the more academic biblical criticisms in a thoughtful way has been an overall success. More than anything, I believe that Soooo much depends on choice of vocabulary (e.g. “gender issues” rather than “feminist criticism”), and how you deliver the principle.

    Comment by DMN — April 13, 2009 @ 9:28 pm

  26. I was just about to add that Aquinas had a post entitled “Stephen Robinson and the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy” http://summatheologica.wordpress.com/2009/04/12/robinson-and-the-chicago-statement/

    Then I saw that he made the original comment here already! It’s certainly something to think about.

    Notwithstanding, I’m still a big fan of “How Wide the Divide?”, even if Robinson is not infallible. :)

    As for Bart Erhman, I found one of his lectures completely fascinating, as well as educational. I collected the youtube segments of his speech at Stanford and posted them together on my blog. If anyone is interested:

    Bart Ehrman: “Misquoting Jesus: Scribes Who Altered Scripture and Readers Who May Never Know”
    http://latterdayspence.blogspot.com/2009/04/bart-ehrman-misquoting-jesus-scribes.html

    Comment by Clean Cut — May 22, 2009 @ 12:21 pm

  27. I have a DVD of Erhman. I too am one of his fans. I have most if not all of his books.

    Comment by Margie Miller — July 15, 2009 @ 3:17 pm

  28. I have to say I’m struggling a bit when it comes to this Erhman fellow.

    What do LDS make of his claims that most of the Bible is forgery? That accounts of the ressurection, etc are false?

    Does he have any evidence to support such claims? Or is he using the fact that there was mistranslations to suggest that most of what is in the Bible is in fact false?

    Comment by Tony — November 30, 2009 @ 2:08 pm