Answering Professor Ehrman’s Essay
In his book Jesus, Interrupted, New Testament scholar and textual critic Bart Ehrman notes that he gives his students a reflection question at the end of every semester in his introductory course on the New Testament. Allowing two pages to respond, he asks the following:
You’re talking to someone about religion and, as sometimes happens, she turns on the steam. “Look,” she says, “the New Testament is full of contradictions; we can’t know what the man Jesus actually did; the apostle Paul turned Jesus’ simple preaching of the coming Kingdom into a complicated theological system of sin, judgment, and redemption; and most of the NT writers actually believed that the end was coming in their own lifetime. This book is misogynist and anti-Semitic and homophobic and has been used to justify all sorts of horrendous acts of suppression over the ages: just listen to some of the televangelists! This is a dangerous book!” How do you respond? (2009, p. 270).
How would I respond? I would write something like this: “Professor Ehrman, the question above is an assemblage of common assumptions and unsophisticated mistakes routinely made by those unfamiliar with Christianity. First, the contradictions of the New Testament that she alleges are extremely weak. In your books Misquoting Jesus and Jesus, Interrupted, you list a number of commonly charged discrepancies, contradictions (e.g., 2009, pp. 19-61; cf. Ehrman, 2008), and deliberate alterations (Ehrman, 2005, pp. 151-175), but you dismiss many potential explanations out of hand. In some cases, you adopt a simplistically literal and presumptive reading that actually creates a contradiction where none truly exists. In other places, you ask for a solution for the alleged contradiction, but artificially raise the bar on the evidence so that nothing is able to pass. Many of your charges are ‘unanswerable’—not because you have demonstrated an unsolvable error—but because you reject and dismiss plausible answers.
Your skepticism is evident in the charge that very little truth about Jesus’ life can be known with certainty. The gospel records are frequently attacked as late sources, but what would you say about a biography written about Abraham Lincoln? Or Julius Caesar? Or Alexander the Great? If you were consistent, you would have to admit that we know virtually nothing about these historical figures, and we must immediately rewrite all social studies and history textbooks from grade school to graduate school to reflect this fact. You despair over what you consider to be “misconceptions” concerning Jesus; you should likewise be distraught over the idealistic historical certainty concerning every other notable figure in human history. What is good for the goose is good for the gander, after all.
Your particular beliefs concerning the alleged legendary nature of Jesus are dependent upon the unreliability of the gospels accounts, which you do not prove. You argue that most of the books of the New Testament are either anonymous (1999, p. 42), or forged (2009, pp. 101-107,123-137). Yet you do not address the fact that the early church was virtually unanimous on their authorship. If they were truly anonymous, there would have been a great deal of dispute concerning their authorship. Since scholars disagree as to who wrote the book of Hebrews, why is there such a far-reaching consensus concerning the four gospel records?
The charges of misogyny, anti-Semitism, and homophobia against the Bible are seen as laughable once the text is closely examined. Jesus spoke to a Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well (John 4), an unthinkable and nearly unspeakable act in light of the social mores in first-century Palestine, a fact of which you are surely aware. You assert the Bible teaches that women may only be saved if they are married and pregnant (2009, p. 222), a reading most scholars would dismiss. Yet Paul tells women without reservation that they are co-heirs in salvation along with men (Galatians 3:26-4:8). Your claim is the result of a terribly naïve misreading of the text.
Please explain how the New Testament text is anti-Semitic when several books, including Matthew, John, and the letters of Paul, are obviously Semitic. Indeed, all but perhaps one of the New Testament writers were Jewish! If this charge is to stick, then you must demonstrate that Christianity was started by a group of self-hating Jews. You try to show that later Christians were anti-Semites (2005, pp. 187-195; 2009, pp. 237-245), and this, unfortunately, is true in some cases. But your essay question did not say ‘later Christians.’ It said ‘this book,’ i.e., the New Testament. The New Testament authors have a rather high view of all things Jewish, as one might expect from Jewish authors. For Paul, the Law was no longer in effect, but he still called it a ‘custodian’ or ‘guardian’ (Galatians 3:24; Greek, paidagogos), indicating that it still deserves respect, even if particular laws no longer apply. This hardly sounds like an anti-Semite. Curiously, you also fail to address the fact that roughly a third of the New Testament consists of quotations from and allusions to the Old Testament Jewish Scriptures.
Your question also argues that many have used it to justify horrors perpetrated upon their neighbors throughout the ages. But is this really the fault of the New Testament itself? Human beings have a remarkable way of justifying virtually anything. Courtrooms are full of criminals whose defense attorneys have painted them as victims. Psychiatrists’ offices are loaded with patients who blame others for their own failings. When we strip away the presuppositions, we discover that those who have used the Bible to justify violence and oppression have done so based on their misinterpretations and selective distortions. They have bypassed the clear teachings of Christ and the New Testament authors, choosing instead to abuse selected verses to justify poor decisions.
Listen to the televangelists about the dangerous book from which they preach? What about the smiling preachers who coddle their audiences with messages of love, kindness, and patience, masterfully evading every difficult or negative topic? You may not have noticed that there is something of a crisis in preaching among evangelical circles because no one wants to preach on hell. Church discipline is likewise avoided. Churches are afraid of being sued these days, and for good reason. The threat of lawsuits has caused more than one church to reconsider disciplining one of its wayward members, thanks to high profile cases in which members have successfully sued their former congregations and won generous settlements. If anything, Christianity at large has issues with too much tolerance, rather than too little.
You seem to forget that most orphanages, hospitals, and universities trace their origins back to Christianity. So do most charities. Ask any of the hundreds of millions who have benefited from Christian compassion if they are glad that a Christian found them in poverty, drug or alcohol abuse, or in a gutter at the lowest point in their lives. Listen closely to their answer. It might just convince you—or your hypothetical conversant, whichever may be the case—that true Christianity is not dangerous after all.
Professor Ehrman, while you frequently invoke ‘scholarship’ as a defense of your positions, and claim that most scholars agree with those positions, you never address conservative scholars who are in radical disagreement with you. Citing scholarship in your favor is not an automatic defense. I can find scholars farther left of you who claim Jesus was a homosexual or a Buddhist, or that early Christians worshipped a psychedelic mushroom god. I can also find scholars farther right who believe that Jesus is the Son of God just as Scripture claims. Many, perhaps most, academicians would not agree with your simplistic readings of many biblical passages, which give the impression that you have chosen the most ridiculous readings possible in order to cast doubt on the text and the historical foundation of the events it describes. Your overall strategy is to ignore any opposing viewpoint or treat it derisively—hardly the objectivity characteristic of a genuine scholar. Your footnotes continually refer others back to your own work. Such hardly builds much confidence in your assertion that virtually all scholars agree with your viewpoint—when you never refer to any of them. You believe that adopting a critical stance against the Bible allows anyone to see its ‘problems.’ But the fact is that even a cursory knowledge of the Bible just as easily answers them.”
Bart Ehrman is a leading voice in New Testament textual criticism today. He is well respected in some circles and accomplished in his field, but accolades are not the measure of whether one is right or wrong. The Christian would do well to remember that Ehrman is not the first critic of Scripture, nor will he be the last. The Bible has weathered the attacks of critics for 2,000 years—and shows no signs of being discredited.
Ehrman, Bart (1999), Jesus, Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium (New York: Oxford University Press).
Ehrman, Bart (2005), Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why (San Francisco: Harper).
Ehrman, Bart (2008), The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings (New York: Oxford University Press).
Ehrman, Bart (2009), Jesus Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (and Why We Don’t Know About Them) (New York: HarperOne).