UPDATE: A substantial response to and critique of Ehrman’s views on textual criticism can be found in this essay by evangelical New Testament Greek scholar Daniel Wallace.
Bart Ehrman is rapidly rising up the list of names appearing frequently in the watchblogosphere. As Ehrman gets more attention on the secular media, more apologists and defenders of the faith invoke Ehrman’s name and contend with his work in New Testament studies. A recent post at a well known watchblog took off from the Washington Post’s coverage of Ehrman.
Ehrman’s rise in public visibility is due to several factors. He’s an ex-evangelical, which the MSM finds irresistably appealing, having attended MBI and Wheaton, but losing his faith in later graduate school at Princeton. Today he describes himself as an agnostic, though I detect no antagonism or resentment toward religion or zealous need to convert others to unbelief.
Ehrman is a prolific author, rivialing NT Wright in production, with a whole basket of best-selling titles generated in the last few years, many riding the wave of interest in radical Jesus studies, Gospel revisionism, gnostic Gospels, The DaVinci Code and other “hot” media topics. Publishers know that Ehrman is gold with a segment of the reading public, and he has been obliging with works on DVC, Mary Magdalene and The Gospel of Judas.
Ehrman has also been building a reputation as a teacher accessible to the average educated layperson. He has a number of popular teaching series available through “The Teaching Company” dealing with historical Jesus studies and New Testament studies. As head of the religion department at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Ehrman has the credentials and the communication skill to be a “media-friendly” communicator. A recent discussion of DVC at Duke university demonstrates why Ehrman is a popular teacher.
Ehrman’s writing is very readable and understandable. He writes good prose that is simple and largely free of jargon. He takes his time to illustrate and explain difficult concepts. It is easy to see why Ehrman’s books are popular and actually read, rather than just purchased and shelved. Many scholars simply aren’t good writers. Ehrman breaks that stereotype.
Of course, Bart Ehrman isn’t a Christian, and his overall project is certainly not friendly to orthodox, confessional Christianity. He is much more a part of the radical revisionist movement in American New Testament studies, though he would never be mistaken for J.D. Crossan. When one reads Dr. Ehrman, one doesn’t read a carping, attacking, angry or demeaning tone. Ehrman is respectful to traditional Christian beliefs which he believes are wrong, and is a contrast in temperament and style to critics like Spong. Part of Ehrman’s appeal is surely his measured, intelligent, NPR-friendly presentation. Reading Ehrman, you don’t feel “preached at” or called upon to walk the aisle as a “true unbeliever.”
Perhaps the best thing Bart Ehrman has going for him is that he is supplying answers and information in areas the church has long neglected to address on a popular level with any real consistency or competence. Take his seminal book “Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew” and its companion volume of primary texts, “Lost Scriptures: Books That Did Not Make It Into The New Testament. Both books are interesting, accessible and informative, no matter what one thinks of Ehrman’s conclusions.
I have been involved in church my entire life. I attended a Christian college with required Bible, and I did three years plus of seminary. I have been around Christian education my entire life. I’ve heard of the gnostic Gospels. I understand the basic concepts involved in the development of the New Testament. I could probably do a good job of explaining why the Gospel of Thomas wasn’t in the canon. But I still found Ehrman’s books fascinating, and I learned an enormous amount of basic, very relevant material about the development of the New Testament. Of course I disagree with many of Ehrman’s claims, but I am a specialist compared to the average educated church attender.
A college student or educated layperson, however, will probably NEVER hear ANY of this material in church or Christian education, and is unlikely to hear more than a few dismissive references to these subjects in the typical conservative Christian school at any level. The fact is, writers like Ehrman are able to find a huge audience who have been left ignorant and underinformed by Christian education and teaching that simply finds this era and these topics useless, intimidating or dangerously controversial. In the last ten years, that same audience has been softened up by the Jesus Seminar, constant cable television/MSM attention to fringe scholars and, of course, the endless media buzz over stories like DVC and the Gospel of Judas.
Ehrman has an audience because Christians are oddly reluctant to talk about the birth and early development of our faith. When the faith is on ground that can be addressed by non-Christian historians and scholars, we do not do well. Now that this breech is obvious, books are pouring off of evangelical and Catholic presses, but I think the damage has been done, and the damage is substantial. Instead of acting like our sources and understanding of these basic questions of the early years of the faith are strong, we’ve acted like Mormons who prefer to tell you about the Bowling league and not discuss the sources of Joseph Smith’s writings. We have a lot of ground to make up, and few of us are prepared to do so.
The answer to this is not to vilify a scholar like Ehrman as weak-minded and stupid. It’s unfortunate that some bloggers have caricatured Ehrman’s loss of faith. Reading villifications of an unbeliever for rejecting the Gospel reveals a pathetically uncompassionate mind and heart.
Personal faith is, according to the reformed theology I was taught, a GIFT of God. If Ehrman is an apostate, then he is no more or less to blame than your lost neighbor who can’t spell textual criticism. I join the critics in finding Ehrman’s tale of his faith being destroyed by coming to believe there was one mistake in Mark to be somewhat dramatic. It makes for good reading in the opening chapter of “Misquoting Jesus.” But I’m going to suggest that if Dr. Ehrman is like the rest of us who have struggled with these issues, then his loss of faith was a complex, multi-layered experience. The “mistake in Mark” may have been a crossroads, but I’ll wager there was much more of the foundations of faith already shaken and ruined. Reading of his assimilation into an evangelicalism that evangelized from a manipulative position of selling peace of mind to teenagers and then putting the faith’s existence on the foundation of the theory of textual inerrancy, I’m not surprised he dropped out. As one who has rejected both of these premises myself, but retained my faith in Jesus, it is my hope that Dr. Ehrman will remain open to a conversation about Jesus that does not rest upon the theories and mythologies that he effectively deconstructs.
What is Ehrman’s agenda? Ehrman wants to recover a view of the early years of Christianity that is full of diversity, social/political dynamism, depraved agendas and not-so-subtle warfare between rival groups. He believes that Christianity is the ultimate case of history being written by the winners, and the non-canonical writings are the key to recognizing the truth of this view of Christian origins. To his credit, he rejects the bizarre version of Christian origins sold in The DaVinci Code, but his views on the development of “orthodoxy” are not a story of divine preservation of the Gospel, but of evolution, distortion, adaptation and political competition.
Ehrman wants us to realize that Paul’s Judaizers believed they were true Christians. He wants us to know that the communities that produced Gnostic texts like Thomas and Judas were “believers” in Jesus with a sincere faith similar in many ways to the faith of all Christians. He suggests that our picture of Jesus is incomplete if we start at the conclusions left us in the creeds, because there is much about Jesus that has been abandoned on the way to a very artificial and vulnerable consensus. He believes the study of the textual history of the New Testament tells a story we have been reluctant to hear.
Could the early years of the church have been as “messy” and chaotic as Ehrman describes? Is his version of a proto-orthodox group willing to change texts, forge, vilify and slander opponents and eventually excommunicate all rivals anywhere near the truth?
I will let the reader decide for him/herself. I abhor those who say real Christians have no business reading someone like Ehrman. I believe that Bart Ehrman’s vision of early Christian history and development is often truthful, and can be helpful to the careful and cautious student. It should stimulate us to more study, and especially to a more careful and committed reading of the documents left us by our ancestors in the first four centuries of the church’s life. We should be less accepting of white-washed versions of church history meant to put us to sleep with the assurance that everyone has always agreed with what we believe, and anyone who doesn’t agree with us is, of course, a heretic. One of the marks of an educated person is not being afraid of hearing a more complex, realistic, less flattering view of his/her own history.
I don’t like what Howard Zinn has to say sometimes, but I need to read his “People’s History,” listen and learn. It won’t destroy my belief in America, and it can make me a better American. So with Ehrman’s version of Christian origins. He provides a workout, and some of us need to get up off the couch.
I also believe Ehrman is often seriously and genuinely wrong. Some of his conclusions are premised upon evidence that has been easily explained for decades. He sometimes finds alarming evidence where simpler explanations are far more likely. (I’m sure he won’t be resigning his positions as a result of my disagreement with him.)
I find that true faith in Jesus is not vaporized by new versions of history written by former evangelicals. The New Testament records conflicts, disagreements, flaws and shameful human depravity among Christians. I do not have any problem believing that the path to our New Testament and to the orthodox confessions of faith contained episodes of every kind of human failure and shameful tactic. I believe I understand what was happening with the various groups who also held faith in a very different interpretation of Jesus and the Gospel to be the truth. None of these things, however, convinces me that the New Testament’s presentation of Jesus is fundamentally false to the belief that God came among us in Jesus, lived, died, rose and transcended the world for us and for our salvation.
Would I recommend Ehrman to young, curious Christians? Perhaps…if they are properly prepared to understand the questions and the evidence, and not to simply accept Ehrman’s answers as always unbiased or reasonable. I would recommend that older, more knowledgeable Christians begin to take the early years of the church, the process of doctrinal development and the quest for the historical Jesus more seriously. If we do that, and our scholars write as well and perform as winsomely as Ehrman, we will have no reason not to read and consider his ideas.