December 13, 2017

Who’s Afraid of Bart Ehrman?

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.

The Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never KnewBart 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.”

Lost Scriptures : Books that Did Not Make It into the New Testament 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.

A brief CV of Dr. Ehrman and a list of his publications are available at Wikipedia.

Comments

  1. Very well-said, Michael. I had similar thoughts when reading the “stupidity” post. In fact, I had the exact same thought as what you articulated regarding his position vis-a-vis the doctrine of election — why should we mock someone who has not received that grace?

    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.

    Exactly! I blogged last night about the seeming arrogance of those who were calling him all kinds of childish names.

    Thanks for this balancing post.

    steve 🙂

  2. Someone- “James?” -posted a long comment in here, which I approved, but which is not showing up. I also deleted my email copies. I am not trying to keep your comment out, and I have never had this problem before. If you can repost the comment, I would be glad to run it, and please accept my apologies that the comment hasn’t appeared.

  3. Hola,
    I get emails occassionally from college students who attend Georgetown College (baptist school) looking for answers to the arguments against the truthfulness of the Bible.

    Finally, I asked what was the typical required reading for the New Testament courses and it appearantly Ehrman. What are your thoughts on a Baptist school using Ehrman?

    Adios

  4. This is a good thoughtful post. Thank you.

  5. hashman…

    I was at a Legends’ game one night a bunch of Georgetown faculty were there as a group. I wound up setting next to the religion department faculty, and listened to a new faculty member in that department share his/her views for a good hour.

    Well….let’s just say that I was disappointed on several levels.

    1) The person was way out there on the revisionist limb, and had no connection with evangelical scholarship at all. It was all Jesus Seminar type stuff.
    2) Whoever hired this person was showing real contempt for the people who pay the bills, which makes me applaud Georgetown’s decision to leave the KBC family.
    3) Sad for the students who were going to hear this kind of stuff in a basic class. After a good foundation, you can read a lot of things and research a lot of things. This wasn’t that foundation. It was trendy, PC and radical.

    I could see Ehrman as a supplemental text on a reading list for “Recent Revisionist Theories in NT studies.” Or as a secondary text in an advanced course that dealt- critically- with the recent revisionist theories of Crossan, Spong, Borg, etc.

    But as a main text? Bad choice, imo. Of course, I have not read his intro to the NT, but if the man is not a Christian, and Gtown is a Christian school, I think they are being rather arrogant and foolish to use Ehrman as opposed to someone like Raymond Brown or any number of evangelical scholars of weight.
    3)

  6. James Snapp, Jr. says:

    Michael,

    Greetings. Dan Phillips’ blog-entry seemed to be directed at willfully gullible reporters about Ehrman and his work, not toward Ehrman himself. I think DP made some good points. Now some thoughts about what you wrote:

    If you detect no anti-evangelical bias in Ehrman’s writings, I don’t think you’ve read “Misquoting Jesus” very closely. If such a thing as subtle zeal can exist, it’s all over “Misquoting Jesus.”

    Ehrman may seem like a prolific author, but take a closer look at the contents of the books that have his name on them. He’s written “The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture” and “The New Testament: A Historical Introduction” and a life of Jesus — and a lot of the contents of those three (academic) books has been reorganized and placed between different covers, forming new (non-academic) books! Other “new” books consist of new presentations of stuff presented by earlier scholars. (“Lost Scriptures?” — c’mon; it’s a new presentation of material which other scholars had already published.)

    When you said, “A college student or educated layperson, however, will probably NEVER hear ANY of this material in church or Christian education,” you said that as if it’s a bad thing. I’m not so sure about that. Should astronomy teachers make sure that their students are thoroughly informed about the geocentric beliefs espoused by Tycho Brahe? No? Why not? Why are Brahe’s theories dismissed as trivia? Because they’re FALSE. And to those who regard Gnosticism and Docetism and Heresy XYZ as false, and to those who don’t think the Shepherd of Hermas belongs in the Bible, information about those subjects is rightly regarded as trivia. They only become non-trivia when someone comes along who attempts to revive the idea. The church is to be a guide, and what kind of guide takes his tour-group on a tour of dead ends and ditches?

    Also, I really don’t think that it’s God’s fault that Dr. Ehrman became an apostate.

    You asked, “What is Ehrman’s agenda?” I’m not telepathic, but I suspect that Ehrman intends to do whatever he can to change Christianity so drastically that a person with beliefs congruent to his present beliefs — a Christianity which involves no miracles — is considered a Christian.

    You said, “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.” The part about “everyone who doesn’t agree with us is a heretic” is not a “white-washed” version of church history; Jesus, Paul, Jude, and Irenaeus harbored that sentiment when it came to some basic components of the gospel. But “everyone has always agreed with what we believe”??? That’s preposterous, Michael; it’s preposterous to claim that any Christian historians have claimed that.

    It’s late. I welcome you to read my critique of “Misquoting Jesus” at http://www.curtisvillechristian.org/Misquoting.html . Not everyone is as impressed with Dr. Ehrman’s material as you seem to be. You can find good books on early church history, the NT canon, and textual criticism, without the atheistic spin (and wild exaggerations!), if you take the time to look for them. Happy hunting.

    Yours in Christ,

    James Snapp, Jr.
    (re-posting a lost post)

  7. Thanks for reposting James. My apologies for losing the post.

  8. >But “everyone has always agreed with what we believe”??? That’s preposterous, Michael; it’s preposterous to claim that any Christian historians have claimed that.

    i.e. all true Christians believe what our church believes and it has always been that way.

    If you haven’t encountered that one, let me give you some web sites to visit. Google Southern Baptist Landmarkism 🙂

  9. kawika37 says:

    “As head of the religion department at North Carolina State University, Ehrman has the credentials and the communication skill to be a “media-friendly” communicator.”

    I believe this is incorrect. UNC not NCSU. Many folks in North Carolina feel strongly about this distinction. 😉

    http://www.unc.edu/depts/rel_stud/faculty/Ehrman1.html

  10. panhandle says:

    “…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”

    Michael, this is a subject that I think needs more discussion. I’m just recently on the road to leaving those things behind as the foundation of my faith (currently reading “Christian Theologies of Scripture” by Justin Holcomb) and would appreciate it if you could perhaps spend a whole post on that journey.

  11. Thanks for this post Michael. My store carries his first two books on the Lost…, and we’ve found them quite valuable. But I’ll have to admit that I was not aware that had left the fold, so to speak until I came across his Misquoting Jesus book in another store. When I glanced at it, it made me re-evaluate his other works. I still think they’re valuable, but I recommend them cautiously to my customers, warning them of his drift to unorthodoxy and now unbelief. BTW, I appreciate your mention of Howard Zinn. I agree that his politics is quite radical, and in many ways fundamentally flawed. Yet he offers a much needed critique of American history that betrays our perpetual “innocence”. Have you read Richard Hughes’ “The Myths Americans Live By”? I just finished it this weekend and highly recommend it. He does come from a somewhat social gospelly perspective, so filter the work in that light. But he, like Zinn, helps to lay waste our collective amnesia over the American dream.

  12. Greeting Michael,
    I have to say that I really enjoyed and agree with much of what you have said about Professor Ehrman! I started to listen to his lectures since 2002 and own almost all of his Teaching Company lectures. I simply cannot get enough.
    He has admitted to being an agnostic but I don’t think that makes him a non-christian. Not by definition at least. It is my guess that he may prefer a “Lost” Christianity, but as a religious historian , I suspect that he would regret writing in a “Eusebian” way. I think that many of his readers enjoy his un-biased history telling. My next read will be Peter, Paul & Mary Magdalene.
    Regards,

  13. justholco says:

    Pandhandle,

    I wish I’d seen your post earlier (I was in Sudan in May and parts of June. I noticed that you mentioned my edited volume (Christian Theologies of Scripture”) in your description of your journey that doesn’t found faith on inerrancy. Can you say more about that point? I’d like hear more of what you are thinking and how the book plays into that.

    Justin

  14. SkipChurch says:

    A minor correction to the top post. Prof Ehrman attended Princeton Theological Seminary, not Princeton University. Same town, different institutions.

    As a non-Christian who benefited from 12 years of education in church schools, with daily chapel, and Sacred Studies as a regular required course, I have found Bart Ehrman to be an accessible and engaging writer and lecturer. Let me say from the outset that in all the hundreds of hours spent in religion classes I never heard a thing to make me think any of the supernatural aspects of The Story were true. Yet I must say, I was fascinated by the whole business of Christian belief and doctrine, and often found that my teachers (fresh from seminary in many cases) knew things that the ordinary pew-sitters apparently did not.

    In fact, I came to the view that the seminarians knew more than was probably good for the pew-sitters to learn. And that was exciting! The forbidden fruit of knowledge!

    Prof Ehrman captures that spirit very well.

    More atheists come out of seminary than ever went in, and for good reason.

    It seems to me that one part of the Christian community is engaged in a kind of Wizard of Oz “pay no attention to the man behind the curtain” game regarding scholarship. Deny, deny— maybe it’ll all go away. Well, maybe it will and maybe it won’t. I’ve had many wonderful religion teachers, mostly ordained, and they were prepared to listen to serious arguments and judge a case on its merits. That is worthy of respect. Some of the apologetics I’ve read– well, just pitiful. I’ll say no more. Anyway, real scholarly controversy is such fun! I sure wish Morton Smith were alive to see this upwelling of interest…then we’d see some real fireworks!

    I’m no great expert on Bart Ehrman’s qualifications or achievements as a scholar compared to others in the field. But I do have the Loeb Classical Library edition in two volumes of “The Apostolic Fathers” which he edited and translated, and also the 2005 4th edition of “The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration” which he updated with his old PTS mentor Bruce M. Metzger– and neither of these is likely to reach the best seller list.

  15. On a fairly recent NPR program, a Biblical Scholar from a Judaic background (whose name I unfortunately do not recall at this point in time)explained that The Ten Commandments actually meant “The Ten Words” in Hebrew, and that they were not especially elevated above other laws the ancient Hebrews were required to keep. This may seem “trivial” to some, but that is subjective. I am a Christian. To me, such discussions are a breath of fresh air, and I wish churches had more insights given from the Judaic perspective from with the OT came.

    I personally wish more churches DID study books by scholars AT ALL than another flavor of the month God Loves You book. Can we look from the perspective of language, of culture, of archaeology rather than a well-marketed scriptural rehash?

    I respect Bart Ehrman tremendously for having the courage to tell his faith journey story and risk being attacked for where his faith is now by those who see it differently. He did not, evidently, reach his current conclusions haphazardly as seems to be suggested. We can’t know from the outside how traumatic the shifting of his beliefs was for him. It doesn’t mean he’s not a careful scholar.

    Maybe in some cases reading books such as his might make the traditional views stronger, but we have to be willing to look.

  16. nonoy lopez says:

    After all the buzz let’s face the question, who’s afraid of Bart Ehrman? The answer is simple: James Snapp, Jr. and other fanatically minded so called “Christians”?