bart ehrman

Let’s Start Sharing Our Charities

If I were in charge of forming social customs, I would institute one that involved sharing your favorite charities around tax time each year. You would proudly and publicly represent a few of your beloved organizations to friends and colleagues, and explain why these organizations earned your support. Personally I would love to learn more about those causes with which I’m not familiar, and would get an additional kick out of the insight into my friends’ passions.

Sadly the above is not a social custom – at least not within my networks – but if it were, the following would be my contribution (in no particular order). Feel free to share your own.

1. Prison Entrepreneurship Club (PEP): PEP has a remarkably intuitive idea – help transform prisoners into productive members of society. Utilizing volunteers, PEP helps recent inmates develop business plans and offers MBA-level courses to individuals committed to turning their lives around and channeling their energy into productive entrepreneurship. I was actually a volunteer for a recent class, and loved guiding my mentee through the process of developing a thoughtful, well-researched, and compelling business plan. Here’s a write-up about PEP from the NY Times.

2. Doctors without Borders: Most of you will be familiar with DWB and the tremendous work they do across the planet providing emergency medical aid during conflicts or disasters. I first learned of DWB while covering the Haiti earthquake for a media organization I used to intern for; I actually got to interview one of the volunteer doctors and was blown away by his dedication. I’ve since come to learn why they are one of the most respected – and needed – aid organizations.

3. Bart D. Ehrman Foundation: A dark horse here. Not many people have heard of Bart Ehrman’s website – Christianity in Antiquity – but it’s fascinating and has an innovative charitable model. Bart is a world-class biblical scholar and author of several best-selling books including Misquoting Jesus and Jesus Interrupted, and uses his website to raise money for charity. In order to read his daily posts, you pay an extremely reasonable membership fee (~$4/month), and all donations go to organizations fighting poverty, hunger, and homelessness.

4. The Planetary Society: Considering how much I love space, I think it’s a little surprising that 2013 was my first year to give to the Planetary Society. The society was started in 1980 by my hero Carl Sagan, and is now run by everyone’s favorite science guy, Bill Nye. Their mission is to “create a better future by exploring other worlds and understanding our own,” and they take on tons of cool projects like scanning the sky for asteroids and identifying earth-like planets in far-away solar systems. They also take on fundamentally important work like advocating for needed science funding and helping educators better inspire a love of science in their students.

5. United Way (of Metropolitan Dallas): Every UW operates independently, and the one where I happen to live is phenomenal. They have really mobilized the community around three issues: income, education, and health, and work with stakeholders of every size and stripe to make North Texas a better place. One thing that is helpful about UWMD is that they run a competitive grant application process where organizations in the stated interest areas have to pass a battery of reviews and site visits in order to get the UW’s approval. Therefore, when you give to the UWMD, you know your money is going only to those organizations that have been been successfully vetted.

***Important Caveat: Not that anyone would, but please don’t rely on just my (or any one person’s) advice regarding where to give. Make sure to do your own research! Sites like Charity Navigator are great for larger organizations like DWB.

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Answers to Ehrman Bible quiz, part II…

Second half of Bart Ehrman’s bible quiz below the break. Check out the original post to test your New Testament knowledge before reading the answers!

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From Bart Ehrman’s blog:

  1. According to the Gospels, who baptized Jesus?  Who carried his cross?  Who buried him?

Answers:  John the Baptist, Simon of Cyrene and/or Jesus, Joseph of Arimathea.  So this question allows for a teachable moment.  Mark’s Gospel indicates that Simon of Cyrene carried the cross for Jesus.  It does NOT say that Jesus started to carry it, stumbled, and so they had Simon carry it.  That’s how it’s portrayed in a lot of the movies.   But the reason is because of the Gospel of John.  In John we’re told that *Jesus* carried his cross.   How can both be right?  Well, if he stumbles and then Simon (unwillingly) comes on board, the problem is solved.  Part of my course is designed to show how directors have to make decisions when the Gospels are at odds, and this is a place where that has to be done.

The bigger problem is that John indicates that Jesus carried the cross himself the whole way.  So then how could Simon of Cyrene have done it?  In the movie The Greatest Story Ever Told (which some viewers have argued is false advertising) Simon of Cyrene is played by none other than Sidney Poitier.   Jesus (Max von Sydow – long before his Exorcist fame) starts off carrying the cross; Simon of C. is compelled to help him carry it; but he *helps* him carry it – Jesus still carries it himself as well.  So *both* Gospels are right: Mark is right that Simon was compelled to carry the cross and John is right that Jesus carried it!

On the burial question, some readers of the blog rightly pointed out that in John’s Gospel Nicodemus also helps bury Jesus and that in the book of Acts it’s actually a group of Jews from the Sanhedrin who bury him; but the latter is not one of the Gospels (cf. the question!), and Joseph of A. works for John as well as the Synoptics.

  1. In about what year did Jesus die? What year was he born?

I use this question to deal with basic chronology, to situate students in time (since some of them have NO sense of history); I also use it to explain why there was no year zero, again, and to explain that we don’t know how old Jesus was when he started his ministry or when he died.  Luke says (and Luke *alone* says – I assume he was guessing) that Jesus was “about 30” when he started his ministry.  In Mark he may have been 21 or 40; same with the others..   Only in John is there any indication that the ministry took more than a few months (which is the clear impression you’d have from Mark); in John there are three separate Passover feasts mentioned, so the ministry there lasts at least over two years.  Most people round it up to three, add that to Luke’s dating of the beginning of his ministry, and PRESTO, Jesus then is widely assumed to have died when he was 33.  But who knows?  (In my view, no one knows.)

  1. The author of the Gospel of Luke wrote two books.  Name two of them.

Luke (most of my students get that one.  J ).  And Acts.   This question is just for some factual information.

  1. What is normally thought to have been the occupations of (a) Matthew and (b) Luke?

Tax Collector and Physician.  If I have time in class, I explain that in fact we don’t know who wrote these books, and I point out that if you read the only passage in Matthew that mentions someone named Matthew, you would have no idea that the author is referring to himself (as the students can see simply by reading Matt. 9 for themselves.   And if I have more time – which I usually don’t – I explain the complex logic by which one gets to the idea that Luke and Acts were written by Luke, the Gentile physician, the one-time traveling companion of Paul.  If anyone on the blog wants to know the logic, I’ll be happy to spell it out in a subsequent post.

  1. Which of the following were Jews?  John the Baptist, Alexander the Great, Jesus, Pontius Pilate, Simon Peter, Tacitus, the Apostle Paul.

JB, Jesus, Peter, Paul.  I use this to give a relatively long talk on how Jesus was a JEW and not, decidedly not, a Christian.  Some of my students start getting nervous about the semester at just this point….

  1. What is the shortest verse in the New Testament?

OK, a number of you on the second try got it right (thank the gods for Google….).   So here’s the deal.  Virtually every English speaking human on the planet who has any idea of the answer thinks that it is “Jesus wept,” John 11:35.   That’s wrong.   I scarcely need point out that the NT was not written in English, and different translations translate different passages differently, so you can’t decide a shortest verse on the basis of an English translation.   I would accept TWO different answers for this question (I tell my students that this is a great trivia question for their next frat party; at this point they start understanding my sense of humor).   If you count by WORDS, 1 Thess. 5:16 is the shortest verse in the Bible: two words, in Greek, “rejoice always” (“Jesus wept” is actually three words in Greek).   If you count by LETTERS, Luke 20:30 is the shortest.  It has 12 letters in Greek (though three words), 1 Thess 5:16 has 14 letters, and John 11:35 has 16 letters.

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Answers to Ehrman’s Bible quiz, part 1:

I posted bible scholar Bart Ehrman’s pop-quiz to undergraduates at UNC in this post, and he’s just come out with half the answers. Don’t look until you’ve taken it!

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  1. How many books are in the NT? 27.  I tell them that this is an easy one.  Here’s why: if you think of the NT, you think about God, and specifically about the Christian God, and therefore specifically about the Trinity.  And what is 27?  3 to the 3rd power (3 x 3 x 3).   It’s a miracle!   (Also there are 3 letters in New and 9 in Testament so 3×9 = 27)
  1. In what language were they written? Yes, Greek.  But some of my students don’t know that.  A good number think the answer is Hebrew; some think it’s Aramaic; and only a very few think it’s English.  I’ve never understood the Hebrew thing, but I think it’s because whenever there’s a Jesus documentary on the History Channel or Discovery or whatever, they flash up Hebrew manuscripts as backdrop, and so people associate Hebrew with Jesus.  (Plus, he was a Jew; Hebrew is language of ancient Jews; and so on).  In any event,  I use this question to talk to them about Greek as the lingua franca of the Roman Empire even though the language of Rome was Latin, and this lets me say a few things about Alexander the Great and the significance of Hellenization in the Mediterranean.
  1. In what century were they written? Yes, some of you pointed out this is problematic.  For the answer I accept first century CE.  And I also accept first and (some) second century CE.  I use this answer to explain to them that we will not be using AD and BC  (and I tell them that if they *do* use them, AD needs to  precede the date – it’s AD 1984, not 1984 AD – and BC follows the date) (moreover AD does not mean “After Death” the way I learned in grade school!! If it *did*, we’d be missing 30 years somewhere….) but CE and BCE, and I explain why historians prefer these dates.  I also have a chance to explain why we have the calendar we have, who devised it (Diogenes Exiguus – a Latin name meaning “Dennis the Short” – in the 8th century CE), how it is that there was no year Zero, and sundry related things.
  1. Name the Gospels of the NT. This is the one every student gets right.  Good for them!  If I have time I explain that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were not actually written by people who called themselves Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, but that they are all anonymous, only later to be attributed to these people.  If I have a lot of time I tell them that the first one to make these attributions was Ireneus in 180 CE, and I say a few things about anonymity, pseudonymity, and so on.   But I do make the point that even though these (decades later) came to be attributed to apostles, they originally circulated without names attached to them.   Students haven’t heard that before!  (Although, as should be painfully obvious, they haven’t hear a lot of things before…  Or if they have, it passed right through them)
  1. Name three Gospels from outside the New Testament. Given the Zeitgeist, most students do know that there are other Gospels not found in the New Testament, though most of them are hardpressed to name any of them.  In this case some students were able to name the Gospel of Peter, the Gospel of Thomas, and the Gospel of Judas.  Occasionally someone will know the Gospel of Mary.  Someone this time suggested the Gospel of James, and I had to count it, since we have the Protevangelium Jacobi, the “Proto-Gospel of James.”
  1. What does the word “Gospel” mean? Some of the students knew this one:  “Good news.”   We get it from Old English gōd-spell (good tidings) itself a translation of the Greek (not sure through what avenues) “euanggelion” (eu = good; aggellion = news), the word from which we get “evangelist.”  And that’s why the four Gospel writers are sometimes known as the four Evangelist.  My students get all sorts of tidbits from this little quiz/discussion…..

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How’d you do? I got 5/6 right in this section (I always forget what “gospel” means, even though that’s quite easy), but I have to say, I only know most of these because Ehrman’s books got me interested in historical Christianity.

 

Class is in session: Bart Ehrman’s biblical pop quiz to undergraduates…

Biblical scholar Bart Ehrman (Univ. North Carolina) is famous for giving a short introductory quiz to his undergraduates on their first day of class to test their knowledge of the New Testament. He’s always surprised by how few get more than half correct as they are fairly easy, particularly if you’ve gone to church with any frequency during your life  (he even sometimes offers to buy students a steak dinner if they get more than 8 right, but admits he doesn’t have to buy very often) .

Earlier today he actually posted his questions (you can visit his blog here), so now you can try yourself. I don’t know about you, but I’m curious to see if Erhman would be buying me a steak dinner. I’ll post the answers in the next few days. No cheating.

  1. How many books are in the NT?
  2. In what language were they written?
  3. In what century were they written?
  4. Name the Gospels of the NT
  5. Name three Gospels from outside the New Testament
  6. What does the word “Gospel” mean?
  7. According to the Gospels, who baptized Jesus?  Who carried his cross?  Who buried him?
  8. In about what year did Jesus die? What year was he born?
  9. The author of the Gospel of Luke wrote two books.  Name two of them.
  10. What is normally thought to have been the occupations of (a) Matthew and (b) Luke?
  11. Which of the following were Jews?  John the Baptist, Alexander the Great, Jesus, Pontius Pilate, Simon Peter, Tacitus, the Apostle Paul.
  12. What is the shortest verse in the New Testament?

Bart Ehrman comments on Zealot and Reza Aslan

After getting several email inquiries about Reza Aslan’s new book Zealot, biblical scholar Bart Ehrman has commented on the subject via his blog. You can’t read the full post unless you are a subscriber, but I with a few bullet points below. Finally, if you have any interest in biblical studies at all, consider becoming a member of Ehrman’s site, as his commentary is always interesting, the subscriber rate is minimal, and all the proceeds go to charity.

About Zealot, Ehrman notes that:

  • He hasn’t read it yet. The publisher sent him a copy before it was anywhere near a hit book, but Ehrman notes he’s generally swamped with reading scholarship and doesn’t have much time for books written for non-experts.
  • Because it has become such a hit, he has added it to the syllabus for his upcoming class at UNC, “Jesus in Scholarship and Film”.
  • His answer, in short, to the question of “is Reza Aslan a recognized scholar of early Christianity?”, is no.
  • Two other books he often has students read for the “Jesus in Scholarship and Film class” are Elain Pagel’s The Gnostic Gospels (which I’ve read, and it’s terrific) and John Dominic Crossan’s Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography (which I have not read but am planning to).

You can dig into these answers quite a bit more by visiting the actual site, so if you’re at all interested I would go here now. I would also suggest, as I have before, checking out some of Ehrman’s own trade books like Jesus Interrupted and Misquoting Jesus.

Evangelical Christians Launch Smear Campaign Against Reza Aslan’s “Zealot”

There’s a new book out causing quite a stir in the Christian community – Reza Aslan’s Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. I haven’t read it, but from what I’ve gathered listening to interviews (the book has gotten lots of media attention) it covers pretty familiar stuff if you follow biblical scholarship or textual criticism at all (which is not that many people, hence the media stir).

The main argument of the book is to redefine Jesus not as God or someone who thought he was God, but as (one of several) apocalyptic Jews. That is, Jesus was an influential Jewish teacher who taught that the Kingdom of God was coming within his lifetime (aka the apocalypse) and was executed by the Romans for sedition. Later followers of Jesus then created the mythology that became our modern understanding of Christianity.

Again, I want to emphasize that none of this is really new – the idea of Jesus as an apocalyptic preacher has been discussed and debated among mainline scholars  for many decades. See contemporary works by Bart Ehrman, E.P. Sanders, John Meier, Paula Fredriksen, or Dale Allison if you are interested in learning more.

Since I haven’t read the book, I can’t comment on its arguments directly, but what I can comment on is the smear campaign by a small group of conservative Christians to discredit Aslan’s credibility as a scholar. The most sickening part of this is that the reasons they are giving focus on Aslan’s identification as a Muslim – as in, because he’s a Muslim, he can’t be trusted to write responsibly about Jesus. The effort to discredit seems to have come from this Fox News blog by John Dickerson. Members of the smear campaign have completely commandeered the Amazon review section of Zealot – giving the book 1-star reviews and posting such insightful comments as:

The author of this fiction is a confirmed Muslim and not an Historian and is clearly presenting biased opinions. This author clearly has an agenda to present. An agenda that if changed to an analysis of Mohammad would earn a Fatwa.

If you go to the review page, it’s quite sad. The 1-star reviews are almost exclusively by people who obviously haven’t read the book, and many are just copying and pasting pieces of Dickerson’s Fox News blog. The highly rated reviews are also often by Christians, but more reasonable ones who attest to the books merit as a work of history and make a point to say that it did not damage their faith and in fact helped them better understand Jesus and the times he lived in.

The problems with the smear campaign are pretty obvious. First of all, Aslan is rather well qualified to write about the historical Jesus (though he’s not as seasoned as either Ehrman or Borg). He earned a masters of theology from Harvard Divinity School and a doctorate in the sociology of religions from UC – Santa Barbara. He’s also written several popular books about the history of religion. Second of all, ideas should be judged on merit alone, not on the religious persuasions of their author. Saying Aslan can’t be trusted to write about Christianity because he’s Muslim is like saying an American who studies Middle Eastern history shouldn’t be allowed to write a book about the Middle East. Is a Jewish scholar allowed to write about Jesus? Or an agnostic? Or a catholic (if you happen to be protestant)? Should we only read books that already agree with our points of view? If Aslan’s scholarship is sloppy, that should be easy enough to point out with a few clear examples. But instead of doing that, this group of Christians has stormed Amazon before even reading the book, and begun spouting off that he’s a “devout Muslim” and his book is full of lies. Finally, Aslan, from what I can tell via interviews and debates like this, is a rather liberal practitioner of Islam, in that he seems to suggest the different views (Islam, Christianity, etc) are just unique ways of getting to the same thing – the same water from different wells that is. He’s far from a fundamentalist (which I think they are using “devout” as a euphemism for) and doesn’t seem at all interested in converting anyone to his particular beliefs.

I have not been a major fan of Aslan’s writings or the views he’s expressed in public forums or debates – and we couldn’t have more different views of the divine – but he needs to be defended. The only thing to judge is the idea, not the person. A faith that can be destroyed by reading different perspectives is not a faith worth having, and trying to dissuade people from information by misinformation is ignoble at best.

So if you want to write a review about Zealot, by all means, do so – but please consider reading it first.

Bart Ehrman – Making Biblical Scholarship Sexy

Bart Ehrman, Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Bart Ehrman, Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Biblical textual criticism probably doesn’t sound like the most interesting subject in the world, but Bart Ehrman, a historian and scholar at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, is somewhat of a rock-star at making it so.

In addition to his published scholarship on the Bible, Ehrman, currently the James A. Gray Distinguished Professor UNC, takes the time to write trade books for the rest of us. The most popular titles have been Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and WhyJesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (And Why We Don’t Know About Them), and God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question — Why We Suffer, among others. If you have any interest in the Bible, no matter your religious affiliation or personal beliefs, then I couldn’t recommend these books highly enough. The titles are a bit controversial, but I think that is more or less an incentive to sex up a traditionally dry subject (see this blog post’s title) – Ehrman admits the majority of what he covers is consensus among Biblical scholars, and generally what has been taught in seminary for decades now (most ministers and pastors, however, fail to include these facts in their weekly sermons).

Ehrman’s personal trajectory is also of note, having moved from a Born-again fundamentalist Christian to a progressively more liberal Christian, renowned scholar, best-selling author (see interview on the Colbert Report here), and eventually agnostic. He is an expert on Greek and ancient languages, and, obviously, the Bible, which is why his debates are so interesting to watch (he also has somewhat of a temper).

Here he is debating Dinesh D’Souza, an intelligent but rather slimy and obnoxious apologist, who like most apologists, is great at rhetoric but not so great at logic. And unfortunately for D’Souza, he is up against someone who already knows all the arguments, and who knows the Bible much more intimately than he.

Finally, Ehrman’s personal website – – is notable for its philanthropic membership model. You pay a few bucks a month and you are provided access to his various blog postings during the week. All the money goes to charity. Quite novel, I think – at least I’ve not seen that anywhere else. I wonder if Joel Olsteen would do it?