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.


Apr 10 2009

As I was saying…

Bart Ehrman is certainly getting his 15 minutes of fame; or at least infamy:

The Colbert Report Mon – Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Bart Ehrman
colbertnation.com
Colbert Report Full Episodes Political Humor NASA Name Contest

In my opinion, Bart Ehrman qualifies as a fool.   I haven’t read his book yet, but everything I hear from him is nonsense.   There’s so much good scholarship out there… he apparently avoided all of it- quite a task.

In that regard, Michael Patton offers a look at how the Apostles were martyred as supporting evidence to the truth of the Resurrection.


Apr 9 2009

Bart Ehrman and the End of Reputable Scholarship

Bart Ehrman is getting a whole lot of press lately (if blogs count as “press”).  Ehrman is a Bible Scholar who has recently written Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the hidden contradictions in the Bible, where he points out various errors and inconsistencies in the Gospel accounts.  Or, says he does, anyway.  So far, all he’s done is get a bunch of atheists – and others who are either ignorant or just looking for a reason not to believe in God – excited.  Although these folks claim to be wise, they reveal something else entirely (see Romans 1:22), which again leads me to believe that for most atheists, atheism is a moral choice, rather than intellectual.

Even a marginal study shows that the New Testament documents are quite remarkable,  and not the error-filled and questionable documents people like Ehrman claim they are.  Much of the problem, it seems, is applying modern criteria to ancient documents and cultures. (This might actually be good, considering how inaccurate the modern news generally is.  I have learned over the years not to trust anything I read or hear 100%; every single news story I’ve read involving situations of which I have first-hand knowledge, has been incredibly inaccurate.  I can only assume, then, the the stories I no nothing about are just as inaccurate.)

For example, Ehrman criticizes the Gospel authors for not including every single word Jesus said on the cross.  Perhaps someone should have told Matthew, Mark, et al. that this was the expectation of readers in the future.   Here’s a quote from Jesus, Interrupted that was “mined” by John Loftus over at Debunking Christianity:

Why was the tomb supposedly empty? I say supposedly because, frankly, I don’t know that it was. Our very first reference to Jesus’ tomb being empty is in the Gospel of Mark, written forty years later by someone living in a different country who had heard it was empty. How would he know?…Suppose…that Jesus was buried by Joseph of Arimathea…and then a couple of Jesus’ followers, not among the twelve, decided that night to move the body somewhere more appropriate…But a couple of Roman legionnaires are passing by, and catch these followers carrying the shrouded corpse through the streets. They suspect foul play and confront the followers, who pull their swords as the disciples did in Gethsemane. The soldiers, expert in swordplay, kill them on the spot. They now have three bodies, and no idea where the first one came from. Not knowing what to do with them, they commandeer a cart and take the corpses out to Gehenna, outside town, and dump them. Within three or four days the bodies have deteriorated beyond recognition. Jesus’ original tomb is empty, and no one seems to know why.

Is this scenario likely? Not at all. Am I proposing this is what really happened? Absolutely not. Is it more probable that something like this happened than that a miracle happened and Jesus left the tomb to ascend to heaven? Absolutely! From a purely historical point of view, a highly unlikely event is far more probable than a virtually impossible one…” [See pages 171-179]

Ah, yes. This certainly sounds like the kind of scholarship and intelligent analysis that I would expect from a Bible Scholar… but of course I am being sarcastic.  But, it doesn’t have to be intelligent if it tells dunderheads what they want to hear.

Ben Witherington has written a couple of posts that exposes some of Ehrman’s many errors, and from my reading some exerpts and interviews with Ehrman, I would tend to agree with Witherington’s analysis.  I haven’t read the whole book yet, but I will – I am getting a review copy sent to me as part of  TheOOZE’s Viral Blogger network.  I haven’t figured out the angle yet- I know there is one, I just haven’t found it.  Regardless, the book will come, and I will review it – fairly, after I’ve read it myself.

Ehrman may be getting his 15 minutes of fame, but I don’t think he’s gaining any respect from the truly wise.