Bart Ehrman is a man caught in the middle.
Ehrman, the James A. Gray Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, has made a name for himself writing nonfiction books that seek to make the historical-critical method interesting and understandable to general audiences.Â (In short, the historical-critical method is a rigorous–even scientific–approach to understanding the origins and original meanings of biblical texts.)Â As a result, Ehrman finds himself in the cultural crossfire between secularists who wish to dismiss the Bible in its entirety because of its flawed nature and religionists who either reject historical criticism as the work of the Devil or who believe a spark of the divine still shines through the smoldering ruins of manifestly errant Scripture.
Ehrman’s 2005 Misquoting Jesus exploded the notion of Biblical inerrancy, pointing out the thousands of known transcriptional/translational errors, and showing how many early scribes “spun” the scriptures to conform with emerging orthodoxy.Â His latest work–Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (and Why We Don’t Know about Them)–takes aim at the idea that the Bible (specifically the New Testament) is free of contradictions.
Under the historical-critical microscope, Ehrman shows, as one example, that the four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) contradict one another on a number of points.Â There are the dueling geneaologies provided for Jesus, irreconcilable details about his birth and crucifixion, differing claims about the nature of salvation, various views about the imminence of the end of the world, etc.Â To make matters worse, there are known Gospels that never made it into the Bible.Â And of the books in the New Testament, historians overwhelmingly agree that most of them were not written by the people to whose names are attached to them!
What’s scandalous about Ehrman’s revelations is not that there are contradictions; indeed, this stuff has long been taught in great detail in nearly every respectable theological seminary.Â The real scandal is that despite their education, priests, pastors and preachers “are, as a rule, reluctant to teach [to their congregations] what they learned about the Bible in seminary.”
Erhman also explores the long and Byzantine (literal and figurative) process by which the Bible was anthologized.Â He cautions against trying to make sense of the New Testament as one book: better to read it as 27 different books “written in different times and places, under different circumstances, to address different issues…”Â The New Testament, in Ehrman’s (and the vast majority of Biblical scholars’) view, emerges as a Rashomon-like jewel with multiple facets, “written by different authors with different perspectives, beliefs, assumptions, traditions, and sources,” which 21st century readers must now sift, filter and interpret before arriving at their own conclusions as to what it all means.
Erhman generously points out that there is still room for scholarly debate on a great many details.Â For example, in his excellent book Jesus for the Nonreligious, Bishop John Shelby Spong devotes an entire chapter to debunking the reality of “Twelve” Disciples, pointing out that there are competing lists of the Disciples’ names, and asserting that the number twelve was selected by later writers for its symbolic significance.Â In Jesus, Interrupted, Ehrman argues for the historicity of the Twelve for the very reason that Jesus would have found the number significant.
One issue that Ehrman skirts is that of miracles.Â Ehrman takes a laissez faire approach to historical analysis of the miraculous:Â “Historians can only establish what probably happened in the past.Â They cannot show that a miracle, the least likely occurrence, is the most likely occurrence.Â The resurrection is not least likely because people do not come back to life, never to die again, after they are well and truly dead.Â But what if Jesus did?Â If he did, it’s a miracle, and it’s behond historical demonstration.”Â So in Ehrman’s view, miracles by definition are not provable.
Despite the mountains of seemingly irrefutable data and compelling logical analyses behind him, Ehrman’s views still sound like radical crazy-talk to most believers.Â Christian apologist Lee Strobel, appearing recently on panel discussion at the Christian Book Expo (a panel, incidentally, that included arch-antitheist Christopher Hitchens), had this to say:
“I used to think that the Resurrection was a mere legend, but there are multiple independent early reports of the death of Jesus Christ, his empty tomb, and his post-mortem appearances. In fact, we have a report in the form of a creed of the early church on the Resurrection of Jesus, mentioning specific eyewitnesses including skeptics, that has been dated back by scholars from a wide range of theological belief – including atheists – to as early as 48 months after the Crucifixion of Jesus, and therefor the beliefs that make up that report go back even earlier, virtually to the Cross itself, so there’s not enough time for legend to have developed.”
If Ehrman is seeking to “convert” the Christian world to a more liberal view of their religion, to embrace the idea that the Bible doesn’t have to be perfect to be the inspired Word of God, he has his work cut out for him.Â Â How can you compete with the blithe certitude of a Strobel?
Nonetheless, for those willing to work their way past soundbite Christianity and delve into the fascinating history of the ancient texts, Jesus, Interrupted is an eminently readable and thoroughly illuminatingÂ introduction to Biblical criticism.Â One need not have read Ehrman’s previous works to gain the full force of this fantastic resource.