May 12 2009

Review: “Jesus, Interrupted”

I was recently provided a review copy of Bart Ehrman’s latest book, Jesus, Interrupted.  I still don’t really understand how the title relates to the book, aside from Ehrman’s claim that the Gospel as we know it was not the gospel that Jesus preached.  His main point, however, seems to be that most pastors know that the Bible is full of mistakes and contradictions, but they continue to preach from it as if it were actually true.  This apparently makes Ehrman frustrated, so he’s taken it upon himself to reveal this scandal to the uninformed public.

Overall, Jesus, Interrupted is possibly the poorest example of scholarship I’ve read in years, if you could even use the word “scholarship” with regard to this book.  Hardly a page went by without my thinking, “Is he really that stupid?” or “Does he really think we’re that stupid?”  Once I even found myself saying out loud, “What an idiot.”  Time and time again Ehrman fails to see the plain meaning of Scriptural passages and repeatedly jumps to conclusion after conclusion, often without the need to make the jump.  It is also clear that if given the option of jumping in more than one direction, he will always jump left instead of right, even if left is an impossible jump.

I will say, however, that I do agree with Ehrman on a few points:

  • I do not believe that “inerrant” is a word that properly describes the Bible.  I know this will get me excluded from certain groups, but so be it.  I do believe the Bible is inspired by the Holy Spirit.  However, if you hold the Bible to a literal, inerrant standard, you run into problems.
  • A Christian’s faith should not be in the Bible.  We are to have faith in Jesus.  Putting one’s faith in something other than Jesus is not only idolatry, it leads to unnecessary faith crises.
  • The authors of the various books existed in a specific time and culture, and what they wrote needs to be understood in the author’s context.
  • Each Bible author must be allowed to have their say.
  • Historical criticism does not necessarily lead to a loss of faith.

Ehrman’s favorite fallacies

Rather than being a scholarly work, Jesus, Interrupted is mostly empty rhetoric, making use of various fallacious arguments.  One of his favorite fallacies is the appeal to false authority.  Besides setting himself up as the expert, I can’t count how many times he refers to “most scholars,” “many scholars,” and makes statements like, “well known among scholars,” and my favorite, “Scholars have known this for well over a century.” (p. 113)  He also makes reference to friends of his (which he does not name) who agree with him.   He also obviously holds himself out as an authority, as he makes many outlandish statements like, “In the early church, baptism was not performed on infants” (p. 127).

Another favorite fallacy of Ehrman’s is the argument from silence. If an author doesn’t specifically say that Jesus was God, he must not have believed it. Again, Ehrman would probably qualify for the Olympic conclusion-jumping team.

While one of Ehrman’s points is that “each author must be allowed to have their say” and they must be understood in context, he never really does either.  Instead, he suspects many of the authors of inventing or changing information in order to support their own agendas.  Those he charges with deception include Matthew, Luke and John, none of whom Ehrman believes were really who they say they were.

I also found the book frustrating in that either Ehrman is really quite obtuse, or he is being purposefully obfuscatory.  He seems to have problems understanding very basic points, and at times he goes well out of his way to take passages literally where there is no reason to do so.  For example, he states, “Matthew thinks that the followers of Jeus need to keep the law” (p. 89), and that Matthew believed that “salvation also requires keeping God’s laws.”  Anyone who has studied the Bible at all should be able to understand what Jesus was saying with regard to the law; but that wouldn’t have served Ehrman’s purpose.  He also has real difficulty interpreting the Old Testament, especially concerning prophecies relating to Jesus. And here again, he accuses the NT writers of making up facts to fit the OT prophecies.

His logic is generally circular, and sometimes so convoluted it’s hard to follow.  When nothing else works, he resorts to his claims that the documents were forgeries, or that the authors made up facts for their own, twisted agendas.

It is not my intent to refute in detail all of Ehrman’s claims; for that, I would have to write a whole book.  For a very good series of posts dealing with many of Ehrman’s claims, I would recommend Ben Witherington, or perhaps Ehrman’s interview with Stephen Colbert.

Obtusities

I just had to mention a couple of issues where Ehrman seems particularly obtuse.  He acts as though none of the 1st Century Christians ever spoke to each other. For example, he suggests that much of the birth story in Luke is made up, as no one was there. He fails to mention that Mary was, of course, present, and that she was no stranger to the disciples.  You don’t think Mary ever told anyone any stories of the old days?  In fact, I have no problem believing that the song of Mary as recorded by Luke was probably a song Mary wrote, and perhaps sang from time to time.  Again, these people did not exist in a vacuum.

Also, with regard to his theories about John not writing the Gospel of John, etc.  Here, he fails to mention that Polycarp was a student of John’s, who in turn taught Irenaeus, who wrote a number of commentaries on the Gospels as well as on Paul’s letters.  Don’t you think these people would have a bit of information about who wrote John’s Gospel? (But of course, Ehrman would accuse them of lying as well.)

My Ehrman-style conclusions

Using Ehrman’s style of reading intent into the Biblical authors, here’s what I think is really going on with Jesus, Interrupted:  Ehrman tells us that he starting doubting much of the Bible long before he became agnostic.  However, his bizarre logic and general lack of understanding would indicate that this is not merely an intellectual issue.  In fact, I think Ehrman is being intellectually dishonest.  It seems that Ehrman has chosen his beliefs, and is interpreting the Bible in such a way that supports his moral decision to disbelieve.  It is very common for those who turn away from Christianity to have a moral issue at the bottom of that decision. I don’t know what Ehrman’s issue is, but he does hint to it in the book (p. 273) with respect to the issue of suffering.

By the way, if you’re thinking, “he’s making this up… he doesn’t know anything about Ehrman’s life or his motives,” then I’ve made my point.

Recommendations

If someone really wants to understand more about the Bible and the issue Ehrman discusses, here are a few recommendations:

The Last Word, NT Wright

Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, Richard Baukham

The Meaning of Jesus, NT Wright and Marcus Borg


Apr 14 2009

More Bart Ehrman, Interrupted

I’ve been posting a bit about Bart Ehrman’s ridiculous book, Jesus, Interrupted, and linking to Ben Witherington‘s series (now up to part 4) examining Ehrman’s claims.  In post #4, BW writes,

The early church, as we begin to see already in Papias, was confident that their ultimate source documents went back to apostles, prophets, eyewitnesses and their co-workers, which is why these 27 documents are in the NT. They were composed by Paul (with help of scribes and co-workers), Peter (1 Peter with help of Silas probably), Mark, Luke (both co-workers of both Peter and Paul), the 4th Evangelist (drawing on Beloved Disciple written sources. The Beloved Disciple composed 1-3 John himself), the compiler of Matthew, James, Jude, perhaps Apollos in the case of Hebrews, John of Patmos, and at the very end of the NT period, the compiler of 2 Peter, drawing on Petrine and other materials.

In short, the NT can be traced back to about 8 people, either eyewitness apostles, or co-workers of such eyewitnesses and apostles. Early Christianity’s leaders were largely literate, and some of them, like Paul and the author of Hebrews, were first rate rhetoricians as well.

The post contains an immense amount of information on how to evaluate ancient literature, and specifically on the authorship and integrity of the New Testament documents.  I don’t know who needs this more, the atheists who are waving Ehrman’s book like a flag, or fundamentalists.

Every Christian should have some real understanding of where the Bible came from and why it’s believable; otherwise, fools like Ehrman come along with their incredibly bad scholarship, or claims about “other gospels,” throwing people to and fro.  The Bible is an extremely reliable set of ancient documents, supported by other documents. It doesn’t exist in a vacuum, as many people seem to think.  It didn’t just fall from the sky, and it wasn’t handed over to Joseph Smith to read with magic glasses.

One book I really want to read – when I have time – is Jesus and the Eyewitnesses by Richard Bauckham (mentioned by BW in his post).  Another I am adding to my list is BW’s future book What’s In A Word, whenever that comes out.  These days it’s not enough to slap a bumper sticker on your car or wear a WWJD bracelet (not that it ever was), or live from emotional high to emotional high; Christians are faced with all kinds of ridiculous claims by people looking for reasons not to believe. We should all be ready with enough knowledge of the truth to call a fool a fool.