This is an article by Natasha Stoynoff. It appears in the current issue of American Atheist magazine, which is sold at Barnes & Noble and Books-A-Million bookstores in the United States and at Chapters/Indigo bookstores in Canada. To find a store near you or to subscribe, go to atheists.org/magazine.
Biblical scholar Bart Ehrman may be an atheist, but there’s nothing like a scrap of ancient papyrus with a few words from Chapter 18 of the Gospel of John scrawled in Greek to give this historian the fervor of a come-to-Jesus moment.
“It’s the oldest fragment of any book of the New Testament that we have,” Ehrman explained of the credit-card-sized parchment he once had the opportunity to examine at the John Rylands University Library in Manchester, England. “I’d known about it for thirty years. I sat there for an hour, staring at it in its glass enclosure. It was thrilling.”
Early Christian writings, what they mean, and who wrote them has been the focus of his thirty-plus-year career. But Ehrman, who is the James A. Gray Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, wasn’t always an atheist. He became a born-again Christian as a teen.
His subsequent schooling at the Moody Bible Institute, Wheaton College, and Princeton Theological Seminary was the springboard to a personal journey that took him from fundamentalism, to liberal Christianity, and then atheism. This baffled his family, who became born again thanks to Ehrman, who served as a pastor after graduating from the seminary. “They’re still evangelical Christian,” he says, “and they wonder what happened to me!”
The truth happened — that’s what. The purpose of this unlikely journey was twofold: To find historical authenticity and accuracy in early Christian scriptures, and to inspire his religious studies students — first at Rutgers University, then at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill since 1988 — to look beyond the doctrine they’ve been taught and think for themselves.
“I’m a firm believer in knowing what you believe and why you believe it,” says Ehrman, who gets hundreds of emails every day from both admirers and critics of his work.
He has authored thirty books, five of them New York Times bestsellers and none of them for the religiously faint of heart. Topics include: how Jesus the man became God, the Bible’s contradictory explanations as to why God allows suffering, forgeries in the Bible, lost scriptures, and questioning the very existence of Jesus.
His latest book, The Triumph of Christianity: How a Forbidden Religion Swept the World, examines why and how Christianity conquered the Roman Empire. (Spoiler alert: Convince the pagans that the Christian god was more powerful than their gods.)
“Gods have been worshipped for millennia,” he said. “Gods could provide what people couldn’t provide for themselves. A human can’t guarantee rain, or that the livestock all reproduce, or that the crops grow, or that a woman survives childbirth. You can’t control those, but the gods can.”
While his aim is not to de-convert anyone, it sometimes happens by default. The Teaching Company’s Great Courses series offers many lectures of his. About six years ago, I picked up several of his audio lectures and began with his talk on the historical Jesus. After just one listen during a loop around the Central Park reservoir, the deed was done, and I was no longer a theist. As I chatted with Ehrman over the phone for this interview, I learned that I’m not alone.
Do any of your students ever start questioning their religious faith in class?
Some put up huge barriers and put their fingers in their ears and start humming loudly because they don’t want to hear what I’m saying. Others become far more thoughtful, and they eventually ask, “What do I really think?” It happens all the time.
I imagine them having emotional, tear-filled revelations and outbursts in the middle of your lectures.
Nope [laughing]. I approach the topics with a good sense of humor. Students realize that I’m not trying to trash them or destroy anything. I’m just trying to get them to think. Rather than falling apart, they become more thoughtful. That’s the key for me.
I have students all over the map. I have students who are atheists. I have students who are Jewish. I have students who are liberal Christians. I have students who are very conservative Christians. I have far more conservative Christians than anything else because I teach in the Bible Belt. I’m not interested in de-converting them or getting them to change their views, but I am interested in them being intelligent about their religious views. If you’re not a knowledgeable Christian, then you’re an ignorant Christian, and ignorant Christians are really dangerous.
You’re famous for the quiz you give on the first class of every semester to see how much students — especially the theists — actually know about Christianity and the New Testament.
Every time, somebody says that [Saint] Paul’s last name is “of Tarsus.”
And Jesus’ last name is Christ!
They kind of laugh about that, but you can tell that some of them are laughing sheepishly, like, “Oh, I guess that isn’t right, is it?” These kids grew up in church, so you’d think they’d know something about the Bible. My students have a far greater commitment to the Bible than knowledge about it, and they realize that pretty quickly in class, too, and are surprised by it.
One of your audio lectures was the tipping point for my atheism. You talk about Mary and Joseph going to Bethlehem for the census, and you then point out there was no census!
Everybody knew that Jesus came from Nazareth. But to fulfill Old Testament prophecy, he needs to have been born in Bethlehem somehow. So you come up with a census. The question is whether somebody sat down and plotted it out and said, “I think I’ll make this up,” or if it happened as a rumor—somebody just tells a story, and somebody else tells the story, and after a while nobody knows where it came from. In either event, the census did not happen. I just had this very discussion in my undergraduate class, and I could see the light bulbs over the head of one of my students.
But it wasn’t about facts when you became a born-again Christian around age fifteen.
In the beginning it was emotional. But I did become convinced that you could argue for the rationality of Evangelical Christianity, for the rationality that there really is a God, that Jesus really is his son, and you could demonstrate that Jesus rose from the dead, and that the Bible is inherent revelation from God.
So I’m having an emotional experience of Christianity at this time, but I was also on my high school debate team, so I was into evidence as well and arguing cases and trying to prove things. Once I understood that evidence really matters, I started recognizing the counter-evidence. I ended up leaving Evangelical Christianity when I realized the evidence just isn’t there.
It was the problem of suffering that finally put the final nail in the coffin for you.
I was teaching a class at Rutgers University in the mid-1980s on the problem of suffering in the Bible. That’s when I really started thinking about it seriously. I’d thought about it my whole life in some ways, but the real questioning started then, and from there it was a domino effect. Things started falling, and then the faith itself fell.
Even though it was a gradual, thoughtful process for you, was it still difficult?
It was terribly painful. It took me years to get over it because my conservative, Evangelical faith was the very core of my being. I wasn’t someone who became a Christian in order to attend church once a week and not think about it otherwise. My entire life was built around my Christian faith. I went to a fundamentalist Bible school. I was involved in Christian ministry. I was trying to convert people. I was teaching Bible studies. I was leading prayer groups. When it disappeared, I felt the foundations of my existence shaken. For me, it was a very big deal indeed. I feel like I’ve gained a lot by becoming an atheist, but I’ve also lost a lot, and there’s no reason, in my mind, to deny that.
That’s the first time I’ve heard you call yourself an atheist. You usually say “agnostic” when you’re interviewed.
Most people probably think that agnostic and atheist are two degrees of the same thing. In this view, agnostics are atheists who just refuse to admit it, so they’re kind of wimpy atheists — that’s how atheists tend to view agnostics. And agnostics tend to think that atheists are just arrogant agnostics.I think that they’re describing two different phenomena. Agnosticism deals with knowledge. If somebody says, “Do you know whether there’s a superior being in the universe?” I’d say, “No. How the hell would I know?” Atheism deals with what you believe. So, if somebody asks me, “Do you believe in a superior being?” the answer is, “No, not at all.” I consider myself an agnostic with respect to knowledge, but an atheist with respect to belief.
Am I correct that most Christians don’t realize they were considered some of the first “atheists”?
The first Christians were called “atheists” because they didn’t subscribe to the belief in multiple gods. Everybody else in the world, apart from Jews, believed in lots of gods. There were gods of the state. Every city had their gods. Every family had their gods. Every mountain had a god. Every stream, every forest. Everything had a god, and Christians either denied they existed, or they said that those gods were evil demons. So they were literally without the gods, and that’s what “atheist” meant.
In your new book, The Triumph of Christianity, you explain how and why Christianity was able to succeed and dominate other religions. You begin by showing a lot of compassion for the believers of the other religions that “failed.”
A lot of friends who are colleagues and scholars in my field questioned the book’s title because it sounds like I’m celebrating Christianity’s triumph as a good thing. I’m not saying that it was necessarily a good thing, and I’m also not saying it’s necessarily a bad thing. Every time one group wins, another group, or lots of groups, lose. The triumph of Christianity led to a large number of losses.
I begin the book by recalling that in 2015, ISIS destroyed the glorious ancient temple of Bel in the city of Palmyra, Syria. And then I point out that the first known destruction of a temple in Palmyra happened in the fourth century, when Christian fanatics wiped out the temple of Allat because they opposed paganism. When that happened, the pagans lost a lot of art, they lost a lot of literature, they lost a lot of architecture.
As I say in the book, “I do not want to undervalue the enormous benefits derived from the triumph of Christianity. Christians and non-Christians can surely agree that the cultural glories we have inherited from the Christian tradition — the art, music, literature, and philosophy — justify our gratitude and awe. But every triumph is also a defeat, and the ecstasies of those who prevail are matched by the agonies of those who lose.” We have to be mindful about the gains and the losses.
The stories of these two temples are so similar, it’s startling.
Fanatics are fanatics.
To me, it seems that the triumph of Christianity was like a math equation with all the right components. In other words, another religion could have triumphed had it been the one to combine the right ingredients.
Christianity was the only evangelistic religion in the ancient world. Other religions had no desire to convert you because they all were both polytheistic and welcoming. If you wanted to worship their god, you could without giving up your other gods. If you wanted to start worshiping Apollo, then you would just start worshiping Apollo. You wouldn’t have to stop worshiping Zeus or Athena or anyone else you happened to be worshiping.
Christians, on the other hand, wanted converts. The Christians were also exclusivist. If you accepted their God, then you couldn’t worship the others. Judaism was the only other exclusivist religion, but they didn’t go out and try to win converts. Jews didn’t care whether you became a Jew. They just wanted to be left alone to be Jews.
The threat of eternal damnation if a Christian did worship other gods also contributed to the triumph.
Right. Christians said, “You need to convert, you can’t worship the other gods, and if you don’t worship our God, you’re going to hell forever.” Christianity is the only religion saying these things, and there wasn’t any competition. As soon as Christians converted a person, it took that person away from the pagan religions, so paganism eventually disappeared.
Did Christianity also triumph because people and society were ready to progress to a more compassionate way of thinking and living?
It’s an interesting thought. Of course, it’s hard to evaluate what’s really going on in people’s minds, but it is true that the Roman Empire had an ideology of dominance. The powerful are supposed to dominate the weak. It was perfectly fine for a powerful nation, a powerful empire, or a powerful town, to destroy their neighbors and enslave them. There was no ethical problem with that. There’s also no problem with men dominating women because men are more powerful, so they’re supposed to dominate women.
But the Christian ideology was not dominance, it was love and compassion. Men and women in the church are supposed to be equal. Slaves and masters in the church are supposed to be equal, so you shouldn’t assert your power over someone else. It’s a very different ideology. Whether that was attractive to people or not, I don’t know. It’s attractive to most of us today, but that’s the ideology we’ve inherited.
What about the persecution of the Christians? It’s not as extensive as we’ve been led to believe. Is hiding in the catacombs completely made up?
The Christians were not hiding out in the catacombs in fear of their emperor killing them. That’s just a legend.
And yet, so many believe this is true.
It’s amazing what some Christians believe.
If you could go back in time, what would you ask Jesus?
If I could have one evening with Jesus, I would like it to be during his last week in Jerusalem. I would like to find out who he thinks he is, and what he thinks is going to happen in the future.
Something like, “What are your intentions, young man?”
Exactly. I don’t think he came to be crucified. I have a very clear view of who I think Jesus was, and it’s a view that’s different from what most people in our society think, but it’s a view that a lot of scholars have had for a long time, and I’d like to know whether it’s correct.
I’d also like to talk to some of his followers after his death. What did they think, why did they think it, and why did they believe he rose from the dead? I’d love to know how many people actually claimed to have seen him.
Those twenty years after he was crucified are so murky.
Very murky. We don’t have a single Christian writing for the next twenty years.
Maybe they were so upset over losing their leader that they had to find a way for it to make sense.
That’s plausible. Their severe loss may have led to their having visions.
In your book Jesus Before the Gospels: How the Earliest Christians Remembered, Changed, and Invented Their Stories of the Savior, you point out that such visions are common, even today.
A lot of people have visions of deceased loved ones. People seeing their grandmother in their bedroom two weeks after she died is very common. Religious figures like the Blessed Virgin Mary show up all the time.
Christianity may have triumphed, but where will it be in fifty or one hundred years? Will it still be around?
The most unsettling trend is that the growing churches tend to be the Evangelical ones, which have a very conservative theology and a very conservative social agenda. The churches that are losing numbers hand-over-fist are the liberal ones that are more open and affirming, with more concern about poverty, women’s rights, and gay rights. It’s a scary moment for Christianity right now because if that trend continues, the two billion Christians in the world will all have a very conservative social agenda.
Yeah, Trump supporters. Him a righteous man.
I’ve heard some of his supporters say, “God chose him to save us.”
Did you hear what reality-actress and former White House staffer Omarosa Manigault said about Vice President Mike Pence? He thinks Jesus tells him what to say and do. He literally hears his voice.
Scary. The people who conducted the Inquisition thought that Jesus was speaking to them, too.
Natasha Stoynoff is an award-winning journalist and New York Times bestselling author. Her new book, Captive: A Mother’s Crusade to Save Her Daughter from a Terrifying Cult, was co-authored with actress Catherine Oxenberg.