Jesus, Interrupted

I recently read through Bart Ehrman’s newest book, Jesus Interrupted. It is a fascinating look at the Biblical texts in all of it’s quirks and contradictions. He sets out to undermine a literalist, objectivist view of scripture in a very compelling and accessible manner. More than anything, I appreciate Ehrman’s ability to bring folks along into some pretty deep waters while keeping his scholarship within the reach of his audience. In my case, Bart is pretty much preaching to the choir. He takes a wrecking ball to the myths of biblical inerrancy and an objectified treatment of scripture.

While it saddens me that Ehrman has abandoned his faith, what he provides here in this book and others is something that should be very helpful for Christians. The Bible does not need to be inerrant or infallible in order for it to be the inspired Word of God. Not only does Ehrman highlight contradictions that seem a bit superficial, but he sheds light on the differences between the competing theologies we find in the New Testament. For example, who’s voice do we heed when it comes to keeping the law or not? Paul’s or Matthew’s? Not that we can’t include both perspectives into a singular theology, but they ARE at odds with one another. What do we make of that? That’s just one example of many that Ehrman proposes.

There is quite a bit of material in Jesus, Interrupted that because of the little I know is hard to totally buy into what Ehrman is saying. His section on the early history of Christianity seems to make sense at face value but I’m not too sure about it all. Ben Witherington has done an extensive blog series responding to this book. It’s worth skimming just to keep some balance but when I read a bit of it, it seems like Witherington is doing a bit more stretching than Ehrman seems to be doing.

On a related note, you can check out an interview with Ehrman by Tony Jones right here.

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15 thoughts on “Jesus, Interrupted

  1. I think that while Witherington might be stretching a little on some specific explanations, he is spot on in his methodological and ideological evaluation of Ehrman.

    He isn’t up on modern scholarship, and that’s a big deal. Because when you’re supposed to be writing from the position of an “expert,” but you really aren’t, then it can be a bad deal. While he’s obviously much more qualified than I am to write a book about the Bible as a historical/theological text, I know enough about Biblical scholarship (on the right and the left) to see that he isn’t nearly as qualified as someone like Marcus Borg or Witherington himself (whether or not I agree with either of them, which I do and don’t at points for both).

    Plus he doesn’t seem willing to be charitable toward people who are even a couple of steps to the right (unlike Borg, or N.T. Wright and Kevin Vanhoozer toward those on the left). Which leads me to my next point:

    Everything I’ve read from Ehrman gives the impression that he’s still very heavily rooted in his fundamentalist past. He kept the attitude and approach of fundamentalists, but his aims are different — he’s just trying to disprove the Bible’s accuracy instead of prove it.

    And that leaves just as much of a bad taste in my mouth as the methods and practices of someone like Al Mohler or John MacArthur.

    There’s definitely a place in the Church for discussing the issues that Ehrman is broaching. It’s essential. But his approach is as untenable as fundamentalists and antogonists on the right.

    • Sean,

      First, have you read the book? I’ve not read any of his other books, but I think he might have toned it down a bit in this book compared to past writings.

      Second, while Ehrman may not be as qualified as others (something I have no way of measuring because of my lack of knowledge), his ability to package this very complicated topic in a way that is accessible is a large part of his appeal. I’ve read tons of Borg and skim Witherington’s blog from time to time and neither of those guys are remotely as clear and concise as Ehrman. And while other may be more qualified, Ehrman is not a slouch and seems to be held in high esteem by many of his peers.

      But I do agree with you that Ehrman seems to still be entrenched in a hyper-modernistic approach to the text. You should check out Tony Jones’ interview with him. Tony brings this subject up and Bart replies that he’s simply fighting fire with fire. It’s definitely worth the listen and it really did soften up some of the few negative assumption I had about him.

  2. Zach, I enjoyed your take. I have not read Ehrman’s book yet, but am looking to pick it up.

    It seems to me the majority of the work he does is teasing out inconsistencies in the scripture. (This was the point of his last book on evil, that the Bible doesn’t given a coherent or worthwhiled theodicy). I suppose this is valuable work if you are seeking to show lay people that their view of innerancy isn’t very stout. But how philosophical should we expect average people to be on this issue? I have trouble here because a refined position on such matters takes a lot of work, and I know too many people who just aren’t thinkers of that sort. So what should we expect?

    In terms of scholarship however, it seems that most conservative NT scholars have a far more robust and nuanced view of scripture and interpretation which is not easily destroyed simply by pointing out descrepancies. I had dinner with Craig Blomberg who teaches New Testament at Denver Seminary a month ago and I asked him about Ehrman. He shared Sean’s opinion. In terms of significant scholarship, he thought Ehrman’s stuff was not very high. And think Ehrman might acknowledge that he is more of pop-writer than a ground breaking NT historian.

    Final note – There is audio now online from Erhman’s debate with NT Wright on evil. I found it enjoyable.

    http://www.parablesofaprodigalworld.com/2008/10/audio-nt-wright-and-bart-ehrman-on.html

  3. I’m sure there can be valid criticisms leveled against Ehrman, but I find it not a coincidence that those who do all seem share a devotional view of the text as well as a historical, critical view. Sean and Jeff, are you either of you aware of scholars who don’t share a devotional view of the text who are refuting Ehrman’s scholarship?

  4. It’s a good point. I am not aware of any.

    I fished through a couple books I have by JD Crossan and Marcus Borg, and they do not quote Ehrman, which may communicate a lack of interest, but on criticism, I’d have to look deeper.

    Be well!

  5. Yeah, I wouldn’t expect Ehrman to be cited by Borg or Crossan. But “lack of interest” doesn’t mean that Ehrman’s scholarship is unsound. If that is the case, I don’t see Witherington or your friend at Denver Seminary referenced either.

  6. Hey man,

    I agree that it doesn’t make it unsound. It just doesn’t make his work ground breaking (which I think *he* would affirm). My impression of Ehrman’s work, and it came out in the Tony Jones interview, is that he thinks scholars do a horrible job bringing contemporary biblical criticism to the masses, and he sees it as his role to correct that (which it seems he’s been quite successful at doing).

    On references, Witherington and Blomberg are both referenced in NT Wright’s series of big books, and that was what I was implying. Reference from your ideological peers shows who is doing the ground breaking scholarship in your circle. And Ehrman shares a circle with Borg and Crossan.

    After scanning “Jesus Interupted,” it looked as though he is putting forth worth whiled criticisms. It seems like a worthy book to wrestle with.

    Be well!

  7. Right, I agree that Ehrman isn’t providing us with “ground breaking” scholarship and I’m pretty sure I’ve never made that claim. But whether he is or not is totally beside the point here and I don’t understand why this has even been brought up. Ehrman himself stipulates in the book that none of the material he’s presenting is in any way new material. That’s the point. It doesn’t take ninja-like Biblical scholarship to see that Paul and Matthew are at odds in regards to the law or that Jesus’ death happens on different days depending on what gospel you read. Reading Witherington in his rebuttal is like watching a contortionist in the way he’s stretching in order to refute Ehrman’s points. He may be a fantastic scholar, but he does have a horse in the race, and that doesn’t always lead to sound historical observations.

  8. Hey Zach,
    Good stuff. I think you are making valid points, and I don’t have much insight or background to critique them. I’m a professional philospher. NT studies is fairly foreign to me.

    I brought up the issue of ground breaking work to place Ehrman in context, not as a criticism. Often not much work is done critiquing people who aren’t blazing trails, and that may be why you don’t see the critiques that you were asking for. But certainly Erhman has enough popular standing to demand a response, so…I’ll be as interested as you to hear some.

    However, don’t expect such criticism from people who do not have horses in the race. All critiques come from presuppositions, and presuppositions result in conclusions and conclusions are very much racing horses.

    Be well.

    PS – Your work on Illuminate has been held in high standing for a long while by many of the musicians I do life with. They are interested in doing a project and you were the first name that came up on production. If you have time, take a look at http://www.timcoons.com to see some of the stuff being done, or, I have a set of three songs that might serve as samples I would love to email you. Let me know if you might be interested. Cheers.

  9. “However, don’t expect such criticism from people who do not have horses in the race. All critiques come from presuppositions, and presuppositions result in conclusions and conclusions are very much racing horses.”

    Yeah, but the difference with scholars with a devotional perspective is that their conclusions are of divine, eternal consequences. I think you would agree that a devotional scholar will be much more likely to project their own self-serving reasoning onto the text. This is very apparent when reading many of the rebuttals to Ehrman’s work by Christian scholars. If a secular historian is found to be wrong, they risk hurt feelings and bruised egos……but not the collapsing of their religious beliefs.

  10. Hey Zach,
    I’m really glad you commented again. I appreciate the interchange and I really need to read that book now. (I have read God’s Problem—that one is actually in my field.)

    So the big claim here is: “a devotional scholar will be much more likely to project their own self-serving reasoning onto the text.” And the proof offered is (1) it looks like that is what is happening in rebuttals to Ehrman, and (2) secular historians have less to lose because their “religious” beliefs wouldn’t collapse.

    I would disagree with this claim. Consider:

    Point (1) – Certainly we could put forth tens of thousands of documents in which scholars not concerned with religious topics reason according to self-serving motivations (turn on any of the cable news debate shows for an example). The claim that it is “more-likely” to come from a certain kind of “devotional scholar” (which you may need to define for me), I think needs much more empirical data, for I see the trend everywhere. It also seems to suggest that a “devotional scholar” cannot be honest. And I would assume you don’t want to make that claim.

    Point (2), I think this false on two fronts. One, adamantly secular historians who have flesh in the game (years of study, perhaps journal articles, perhaps a perceived reputation) may very well discount evidences that go against their opinions because of ends they value deeply. And we could list numerous examples here.

    Secondly, by “religious” I would substitute the word “metaphysical”, and “metaphysical” views might also be called an “ideologies”. Christians have an ideology, but of course so does everyone. Every scholar has ideological glasses through which they view reality, and to think that the Christian scholars take their ideology more seriously is, I think, false.

    Everyone—especially scholars—cares deeply about their philosophic views, and when they collapse it can be painful for all.

    Be well! And I hope you are not reading me as some staunch conservative blogger. I am professor at a public, secular university, who generally lines up with you on most of the things I have read on your site.

  11. Not sure why I felt like including that last line. On re-reading it, it looked a bit snobbish and–dare I say–self-serving. Anyway. Apologies.

    I also covet your drum set.

    • “It also seems to suggest that a “devotional scholar” cannot be honest.”

      I didn’t say that or anything close to it. I said that a devotional or metaphysical scholar, one who is approaching the text while being a person of faith, is MORE LIKELY to project onto the text their own devotional presuppositions. This doesn’t mean, nor have I said, that secular, non-religious scholars don’t also approach the text with their own presuppositions. And this also doesn’t mean that devotional scholars can’t be honest. But I believe that my point is very sound. If there is a scholar, like Willaim Lane Craig for example, who projects onto the text a presupposition that the text is inerrant, he’s only able to do so and teach that view at a christian university because of his devotional approach, not because of his ability to historically critique the Biblical manuscripts.

      My challenge still stands that if Ehrman’s findings are so off-the-mark to the point where he can’t be read as a trusted voice on the matter, then show me some secular scholars who are having big issues with his scholarship. After all, he’s a very popular writer and I’m sure if he were so off base, we’d here from a few of them. I don’t find it a coincidence that the only folks who seems to be up in arms are folks who believe they’re going to heaven when they die. 😉

  12. Hey Zach,

    So, first, my fault on the misread. (I do try to read you in the best light possible).

    Second, I think valid criticism is valid criticism no matter where it comes from. Let’s say Republicans didn’t criticize Bush’s political philosophy, would it imply there was no worthwhiled criticism? So too Ehrman. It *could be* Erhman’s collegues are lazy, want to get in good with Bart, would prefer to point their fire at a different set of targets, etc.

    But (again) I think it is a worthwhile question, and if there is no secular critques of his work–point Ehrman.

    I’m not an inerrantist, but I’m curious. Let’s assume Ehrman’s critique is valid, in your mind, what follows?

    I’m likewise curious if you have similiar critiques for Tom Wright’s article “How Can the Bible be Authoratative?” (http://www.ntwrightpage.com/Wright_Bible_Authoritative.htm)

    I’ve heard you promote Wright’s stuff, and I believe some folks you affirm on your blog recommend this article. Curious where you stand.

    Postscript – I enjoy this topic, but I don’t want to waste your time on this, so feel free to wrap it up if your bored.

    As always – Be well! Jeff

    • Totally agree, Jeff, that valid criticisms can come from anywhere. For instance, I treat the text devotionally and there are aspects of Ehrman’s critique that don’t resonate with me. But his overarching point is something I completely affirm. Maybe you should actually read the book because nowhere does Ehrman say that the errors eliminate it’s ability to be authoritative. The last chapter of the books is “Is Faith Possible” and Ehrman answers an emphatic “Yes.” I like NT Wright and agree with him on a lot of stuff, but not sure on some stuff. I’ll check out the article.

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