On a Telic Thoughts thread based on my “Two Views of Faith” blog entry, Allen MacNeill left a comment suggesting we read this Salon.com article on Bart Ehrman. Ehrman is a best-selling author devoted to debunking the New Testament. The article presents his work as if it were nothing but normal scholarship made accessible for the rest of us:
The field of biblical textual studies is 300 years old; Ehrman’s books simply present the accepted findings of that field for a mass audience.
That’s a clear-cut case of a reporter not doing his research. Yes, much of what Ehrman writes about NT textual criticism is accurate, on one level. As he says, there are known discrepancies among various texts. But he’s making a lot of money on books that exaggerate how much this matters. These discrepancies have in fact been known and acknowledged among scholars of all stripes for a long time, and other than obviously correctable typos, they were all footnoted in a Bible I owned back in the 1960s. None of them really make any difference to the intended meaning of the text. You can read Robert Gundry’s extended treatment on this if you like. One word captures the gist of what he thought of Ehrman on this topic:
That’s “Horsefeathers!” with documentation, by the way. Similarly with Ehrman’s question, “Which Bible?” He acts as if there wasn’t an answer to that question–how astonishing is that!? The Salon.com article says,
As Ehrman notes, there were many other Gospels floating around in the days of the early Christians, many of which claimed to be written by apostles, and there’s no historical reason to believe that some of these non-canonical gospels were any less worthy of being part of the Bible than the books that made it in.
Well, yes there is historical reason. See this general overview (pdf) and this summary of the distinguishing marks of writings that were accepted as canonical. Another, longer artice goes into more depth yet on this. Ehrman is simply wrong on this point.
And then there is this:
Finally, and most devastatingly, Ehrman points out that “some of the most important Christian doctrines, such as that of a suffering Messiah, the divinity of Christ, the trinity and the existence of heaven and hell,” were not held by Jesus himself and were not contemporaneous with him.
This is puzzling. I thought he had said we didn’t know much about Jesus because we couldn’t trust the documents. Now he’s saying we know that Jesus didn’t believe these things. Is that not contradictory?
Ehrman is a scholar, certainly, so I’m sure he has some answer to this. But there are other answers besides, and they don’t support him on this. The trend in New Testament scholarship is actually running counter to what Ehrman said about Jesus’ view of his own deity. This brief article outlines several New Testament passages generally accepted, by skeptical as well as conservative scholars, as genuine accounts of Christ’s life, and shows how they demonstrate Jesus’ view of himself as divine. There is more here.
Jesus saw himself as God. That fact alone takes us a long way toward refuting Ehrman’s contention that Jesus had no conception of the Trinity. Similar responses could be made about heaven and hell. As for the suffering Messiah, he’s right in recognizing that Jesus’ contemporaries did not expect that. Doesn’t that make it unlikely that they would have invented such a story, then? For there is considerable evidence that Jesus’ crucifixion (and resurrection) were reported and accepted within just a few years after his death. The cross is central in Paul’s letters, some of which were written within 25 years of Jesus’ death. How much time does it take for an entire nation’s religious ethos to be overturned, so that a new religion would try to establish itself on a footing so contradictory to what everyone else accepted?
Ehrman is guilty of some clear errors of fact, and some definite errors in interpretation. For those who want to explore this further, I highly recommend two scholarly sources: Reinventing Jesus by J. Ed Komoszewski, and Reasonable Faith by William Lane Craig.