Losing faith: how secular scholarship affects scholars


Photo sxc.hu.Students studying the bible

Recently, the Biblical Archaeology Review published an interview, conducted by editor Hershel Shanks, with four scholars discussing ‘What effect does scholarship have on faith?’ (pdf of article here courtesy of Biblical Archaeology Review).

The scholars are:

  • Bart Ehrman, expert on the apocryphal gospels
  • James F. Strange, archaeologist
  • Lawrence H. Schiffman, Dead Sea Scroll scholar
  • William G. Dever, archaeologist

Here are the brief stories of each of them.

Bart Ehrman

He says he had a fundamentalist faith, and a very high view of Scripture as the inerrant word of God.1 But his studies early on as a graduate student unsettled him that his views about the Bible were wrong. He started finding supposed contradictions, and thus his confidence was eroded. The final straw was the problem of suffering: if God is all-powerful and is able to prevent suffering, and is all-loving so that he wants to prevent suffering, why is there suffering? He decided that he couldn’t believe in a God who was in any way intervening in this world, given the state of things. This led him to question historical claims that Christians have made about Jesus, e.g. that he was raised from the dead, ‘I mean either he was raised from the dead or he rotted in his grave.’

Summary: Contrary to his stated early views, he no longer believes that the Bible is the inerrant word of God.

James Strange

He describes himself as ‘a Baptist minister without a pulpit’ with a faith disconnected from his scholarship. It is instead ‘based on my own experience—a good old Protestant principle.’ ‘My faith is not based upon anything like a propositional argument. When I indulge myself in all this scientific research and explication, I’m not doing anything about faith.’ He notes that suffering tends to disconfirm the hypothesis that there is a loving God that intervenes upon the earth, but he is not really much interested in the attributes of God anyway. He says the best analogy of his faith is ‘falling in love’. He does not believe in Jesus’ literal Resurrection. He agrees that in the earliest Christian language there are certain historical claims, but since he is not in any position to be able to check those claims or even decide on their plausibility, he just doesn’t worry about it. When asked ‘is your religion truer than another?’ he replied, ‘We’ll never know that.’

Summary: Contrary to traditional Baptist belief, he does not accept that the Bible is the inerrant word of God. He is now left with a ‘faith’ that has no objective roots, a faith disconnected from the real world. This is not Christian faith.

Lawrence Schiffman

He is an Orthodox Jew, not a Christian, and claims that the Bible was never taken literally in Judaism:2 ‘It doesn’t mean that it’s not historical, but it is not taken literally in the Protestant sense’. However, he does admit to a literalist strain in a minority of medieval Jewish thinkers. He believes that an experiential approach to faith is much more primary in Judaism. He believes in a personal God, but is unsure whether this God ‘interferes’ in people’s lives or how you would get close to that God. While he doesn’t believe in pluralism, and does believe that certain things are ultimately true or untrue, issues of biblical historicity are not important to him. ‘There’s a non-literalist tradition that I’m coming from. And for this reason a lot of these issues aren’t challenges to my faith.’

Summary: He does not accept that the Bible is the inerrant word of God.

William Dever

His father was a ‘fire-breathing fundamentalist’ preacher. Dever was ordained a minister at age 17, attended various universities including Harvard, obtaining two theological degrees, and pastored a congregation for 13 years. Starting with the idea that ‘In Biblical faith, everything depends upon whether the original events actually happened’, and believing they had happened, he went to Harvard to study Old Testament theology. ‘I got disabused of that in the first semester, so I shifted to archaeology. The rest is history.’ After working as an archaeologist in Israel for 12 years, he ‘more or less forgot his Christian background’. Eventually he decided that archaeology threw biblical history into doubt: the call of Abraham, the Promise of the Land, the migration to Canaan, the descent into Egypt, the Exodus, Moses and monotheism, the Law at Sinai, divine kingship.3 ‘My long experience in Israel and my growing uncertainty about the historicity of the Bible meant that was the end for me.’ Such ‘scholarship’ destroyed his faith. ‘And I realized I was never really a believer, but it just took me 40 years to figure out that it was no longer meaningful.’ He converted to Judaism, ‘precisely because you don’t have to be religious to be a Jew.’

Summary: Contrary to the views of his family upbringing, he does not believe that the Bible is the inerrant word of God (if he ever really did).

Can we learn something from these men?

We cannot comment on specific archaeological issues because we only get a glimpse of the supposed biblical ‘contradictions and discrepancies’ that affected Ehrman,4 and the alleged archaeological evidence against Abraham et al that affected Dever, with no details provided in the interview. See Archaeology Q&A, which covers some of the wealth of archaeological evidence that backs up the Bible’s account of history (Abraham, the Exodus, etc.). And there are archaeologists who have maintained and strengthened their Christian faith, including Dr Bryant Wood, Director of Associates for Biblical Research, Dr Clifford Wilson and David Down.

Nevertheless, the issue of ‘why is there suffering in the world?’ was specifically raised by Ehrman (and mentioned by Dever in the context of his son’s death five years ago)—a crucial issue for many trying to make sense of this world.

The problem of pain

The Bible does address the issue, as you would expect. Ehrman’s complaint was this:

‘Depending on what part of Job you read, you get one set of answers. If you read the Prophets, you get a different set of answers. If you read apocalyptic literature, you get still a different set of answers … Finally, because I became dissatisfied with all the conventional answers, I decided that I couldn’t believe in a God who was in any way intervening in this world, given the state of things. So that’s why I ended up losing my faith.’

Perhaps it is significant that Ehrman does not mention the answer given in Genesis. This is where the Bible provides the ‘big picture’, whereas Job and the Prophets focus on more specific examples, and only make sense in the light of Genesis.

Genesis tells us that suffering and death is a consequence of human sin. But you can only accept this explanation if you are willing to submit to the Bible’s chronology—that is, first came creation, including Adam and Eve, then came sin, then came the consequences: death and suffering. If in reality death and suffering pre-dated human sin, then this biblical explanation is false—and no wonder people lose their faith in the Bible. Thus all Christians should be very clear about what we believe in this regard. Are we willing to accept world-views such as ‘theistic evolution’ and ‘progressive creation’? Both of these man-made ideas deny the Bible’s explanation of suffering, and malign the character of God.

Suffering should direct Ehrman to see that something is fundamentally not right with the world, which is exactly the biblical view. If you deny the existence of God, then you must see suffering as natural and purposeless. How, then, can you determine your role as part of the solution, when there is no problem? Whereas it is only if God is real that we are prompted to ask earnestly, ‘Why does He allow suffering to continue?’ And, ‘What is my God-anointed role in alleviating suffering?’

Ehrman’s proposition that a good ‘intervening’ God could not allow suffering assumes implicitly that avoidance of suffering sits at the pinnacle of God’s Hierarchy of Needs (apologies to Maslow). But, actually, on top of the Needs tree is salvation—that is, restoration of our relationship with Him. So death and suffering should alert us to the need for salvation. (A more deep-thinking question would be, ‘Why did God make the world at all, knowing his creation would turn against him?’)

Schiffman said: ‘But we know that we can’t explain evil, especially after the Holocaust. Any person who says that he can give an explanation for the Holocaust is crazy. Judaism doesn’t claim that the individual will get all the answers to everything.’

This is only partly true. The Bible does not give a personal explanation for each and every one of our individual cases of suffering, but it does explain the big picture, so we can understand evil in general.

As for Job, God never revealed to him why he had to suffer. When Job earnestly questioned God’s judgment, instead of an explanation, God gives Job a four-chapter-long ‘creation science’ exam beginning with this admonition:

‘Brace yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer me.
Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?
Tell me if you understand …’ (Job 38:3–4)

So we are called to trust the Creator of the universe—that He knows what He is doing and what we, as fallen humans, need.

Fact or Fiction

There was much discussion in this interview about the basis of faith. James Strange particularly said a lot about it, since he acknowledges that his whole faith is based on experience.

‘(My faith is) based on my own experience with God.’

‘My faith is not based upon anything like a propositional argument’ (for example: ‘There is a loving God that intervenes upon the earth’). ‘When I indulge myself in all this scientific research and explication, I’m not doing anything about faith.’

‘ … we intellectualized it (Christianity) so much that Christian experience got submerged. Theology was bereft of any kind of experience.’

‘So it’s my own experience with God that tipped me over on the other side. My best analogy is falling in love.’

When asked, ‘Does this God of yours have any attributes?’ he replied, ‘I suppose so, but I’m not really much interested.’

Real or imagined?

This kind of religious position raises questions. What quality of faith is so ungrounded in any historical facts? What personal experience would it take to shake this faith? (He got ‘mad as hell’ at God when his eldest daughter was born with a heart defect, and didn’t lose his faith—but what if she had died?)

Does the issue of objective truth or untruth matter so little? Would he treat his archaeological work in such a way? Why then matters of eternal importance?

Is a faith in ‘a God with uninteresting attributes and Jesus who didn’t really rise from the dead’ attractive to the average non-Christian? Surely this is problematic for a Baptist minister to evangelize or teach others. It seems to me like an ‘emperor’s new clothes’ faith—no substance and unconvincing.

Indeed, Ehrman, who yearns, ‘I would actually like to be a believer’, seems unimpressed with Strange’s answers: ‘… your original question about “What kind of attributes does God have?” matters. Just believing in God is for me an amorphous idea. I think belief has content. Without content it’s simply some kind of feeling that you have inside. I think that faith has to have substance.’

Indeed so. The Bible recognises that Christians need to be ready to speak with some intellectual appeal, not just emotionalism:

‘Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.’ (1 Peter 3:15)

Experiencing God

Schiffman, the Jew, has a similar view to Strange regarding personal experience of God being a key driver to understanding God’s character. He is quite equivocal about finding truth in the Jewish scriptures, however:

‘I believe in a personal God … Does that personal God interfere in the individual’s life or not? How would I get close to that personal God? Can I have a mystical experience? … Somehow or other God reveals himself or his will to humanity. This revelation and its experience constitute in some mystical way, if not in a physical way, the Torah, the Prophets, the Writings.’

‘The life experiences of people are very difficult and very complex, and believing in God is itself a challenge. It’s not about whether I know the Exodus happened or didn’t happen. It has to do with understanding the difficult world that we’re in.’

This is how Ehrman, once a professing believer, links biblical history with experience: ‘Faith in the Judeo-Christian tradition has a God who intervenes. That’s what the Exodus event is, that’s what the crucifixion is: it’s a God who intervenes, and when I look around this world, I don’t see a God who intervenes.’

And Dever, also says he was a believer once, agrees precisely with Ehrman’s summary, ‘I don’t see a God who intervenes’.

This reminds me of the story Jesus told about Lazarus and the rich man, in Luke 16:19–31. As the dead rich man is suffering in Hades, he called to Abraham, begging him to send Lazarus to his father’s house where he had five brothers, to warn them, so they would not come to that place of torment as well. Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets, let them listen to them.’ The rich man pleads, ‘No, father Abraham, but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’ Abraham replied, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’ He is saying that no experience, not even the mind-blowing experience of a resurrection, can change your world-view if it is closed to the historical accounts of Moses and the Prophets. In John 10:22–39, Jesus condemned the Jews for refusing to believe him, even though they had witnessed his healing miracles.

So, a problem for Ehrman and Dever is perhaps that they are waiting to experience God’s intervention in the world for themselves. But even when they see it, the Scriptures suggest they would not recognise it.

Strange does see God intervening in the world, but this experience does not seem to help him believe the history of the Bible (if God intervenes miraculously into the natural order today, why is it so hard to believe that he would do so in the past, e.g. during the Exodus from Egypt, or Jesus’ Resurrection?)

Herein lies the problem with the experiential approach to Christianity: experiences can come and go; past experiences once relied on can be forgotten or fobbed off as once-wishful thinking or coincidence (for example, answered prayer). Where then is the objective basis of the faith? What is the authority for making any pronouncements about the faith? Only the objective written word, God’s revelation, gives us a basis for any understanding of God’s character. Otherwise anyone’s opinion is as good as anyone else’s, and there is no shared basis for understanding.

This of course assumes that the truth actually matters. If it doesn’t matter, then who cares—believe what you want. But the Bible is only ever interested in the truth: ‘God is not a man, that he should lie’ (Num 23:19)’; Jesus repeatedly said, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you …’ and ‘the truth will set you free’ (John 8:32).

Sure, God wants us to know him and to ‘experience’ him—He’s not hiding! But how can I or anyone else make such a bold proclamation? Again, because He revealed it to us: ‘Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you’ (Matt 7:7). Indeed, Christianity is not a philosophy—it is the way to restoring our relationship with our Creator God, through Jesus Christ.

But how do we know the Bible, rather than the writings of a hundred other religions, is God’s true revelation? The answer is: through the real historical accounts of his interaction with mankind, which also reveal God’s character and plan of salvation for us.

The sad fact is that scholarship has robbed two of these scholars of their faith in the historical veracity of the Bible, although it was not really scholarship but man’s opinions based on unbiblical assumptions. Strange has managed to disassociate his ‘faith’ from historical facts, but the other archaeologists did not agree with that approach.

Dever correctly said, ‘In Biblical faith, everything depends upon whether the original events actually happened’. That is, if the history is false, then the theology can be jettisoned as well, since it has no authority. Jesus himself confirmed this when he said, ‘I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things?’ (John 3:12) By way of example, he demonstrated his own ‘theological’ authority to forgive sin, by a physical demonstration of his power over sickness, when he healed the paralysed man (Mark 2). And Jesus made exactly that point when he said, ‘But that you may know that the Son of Man (i.e. Jesus) has authority on earth to forgive sins … I tell you, get up, take your mat and go home.’

Strange denies the literal Resurrection: ‘I think I’m more or less untouched by the sort of literalist interpretation; resurrection is sort of a metaphor’. Yet that has no apparent impact on his theology: ‘I believe in something that means that Christ is alive, and our explanation of that is that there was a resurrection.’

But Ehrman was unimpressed by this reasoning: ‘I think Jesus was crucified like a lot of other people were crucified, and I think that, like a lot of other people, he stayed dead. And so, for me, that had a damaging impact on my faith.’

And Dever too: for him, ‘it’s all true or none of it is true.’ His mother said to him, ‘If I can’t believe that the whale swallowed Jonah, I can’t believe any of it.’

Egyptian art

The biblical writers drive home the necessity that historical facts underpin theology; for example, Paul said, ‘if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God’ (1 Cor 15:14–15). Even Jonah’s account is important, since Jesus himself treated Jonah’s sojourn in the belly of a fish for three days as real history, directly comparing his coming death and resurrection to that event (Matt 12:40). God repeatedly reminded Israel that he ‘brought them out of Egypt’ (the Exodus), a historical fact to underpin their theological beliefs.

Schiffman doesn’t treat the biblical account as real history: ‘… the story of Adam and Eve is like a microcosm of human relations between a man and a woman, about people and God, and about good and evil.’ To those who look for archaeological confirmation of the Bible, Schiffman says ‘that is not what this is about. There are major challenges to the Bible if you take it literally, but that is not what matters.’

Well that is a big call, deciding what matters and what does not. But people are concerned on questions like ‘Where is Eden? Was there really one human being in the beginning?’ because it does matter to them—they want to know whether biblical history is mythical or real—which is exactly what Ehrman and Dever had been saying all interview. And there are good answers to these questions.

Experiencing God through evolution?

Schiffman cites a recent lecture by a rabbi about the problem evolution poses for creation. The Rabbi asked ‘What do I do about it if evolution is obviously true? We learn from Nachmanides that nothing in the Bible about creation is intended literally. What’s important to me is that I have the experience of God as the creator.’

Firstly, this demonstrates that evolution is not a side issue for the Christian faith. It demonstrates how easily an unscientific, naturalistic philosophy masquerading as science trumps the clear biblical teaching of Scripture when a person does not have an understanding of the biblical worldview.

Anyway, how do you experience God the creator through evolution? How do random mutations (all of which ever studied at the molecular level have reduced genetic information, according to bioinformatics expert Dr Lee Spetner, an Orthodox Jew) lead you to God the Creator? They point to God the Judge, perhaps.


Notably, both Dever and Ehrman say they would like to be believers, but they think biblical history has been falsified. If only they would look past their erroneous ‘scholarship’, put aside man-made philosophy about origins (with its assumption of naturalism) and start with the true history of the universe, perhaps they would find it possible. The Q&A answers page would be a good place to start, coupled with a three year subscription to Creation magazine.

The impact of ‘scholarship’ on these scholars is a warning for us, and our children. We must understand the consequences of worldview, and be prepared with answers. One can only wonder what they were actually taught … what ‘facts’ destroyed their faith, because this interview does not reveal it.

It is ironic that the non-literalists (Strange and Schiffman) managed to retain their ‘faith’ because it is largely disconnected from reality, including real history:

‘There’s a non-literalist tradition that I’m coming from. And for this reason a lot of these issues aren’t challenges to my faith,’ said Schiffman.

Thus, liberals might feel that a non-literalistic approach to the Bible can actually protect their faith! Well, what I find most illuminating is that Dever and Ehrman were not persuaded by their associates’ non-literalist arguments, since they were looking for a firm foundation for faith.

Jesus condemned disbelief, since trusting God’s Word is the basis of any relationship with God. For example, Jesus said: ‘Whoever believes in him (Jesus) is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.’ (John 3:18) And ‘Abram believed the Lord, and He credited to him as righteousness.’ (Gen 15:6) That’s God’s call, not ours. Thus, if we don’t know God how can we experience Him? First we must believe his Word (on the basis of investigation and evidence). When we do the experience will follow.

Published: 30 May 2007


  1. See articles explaining inerrancy. Sometimes a misunderstanding of the doctrine causes problems. For example, the Bible can accurately report the errant views of Job’s friends without therefore being in error itself. Return to Text.
  2. His claim is incorrect. See Creation days and Orthodox Jewish tradition. Return to Text.
  3. The lack of correspondence is largely due to the wrong chronology attached to the history of Israel. When the chronology is corrected, everything falls into place and there is abundant evidence for the biblical account. See Timing is everything. Return to Text.
  4. Ehrman said he once believed in inerrancy, but if he had truly regarded the Bible as inerrant he would never have entertained the idea that it had contradictions, but rather would have recognized that any apparent problems were due to his own lack of knowledge or intelligence. Return to Text.