Bart Ehrman has written a new book, Jesus Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (And Why We Don’t Know About Them), certain to join his list of bestsellers. He is quite an engaging lecturer and a leading non-religious scholar of early Christianity. I have enjoyed some of his courses available from The Teaching Company, which often coincide with his books. I appreciate his insights into the cultural and historical context and into literary dynamics of the New Testament.
All of that said, I disagree with him on the fundamental matter of Jesus and Christianity. He self-identifies as an agnostic. I identify myself as a Christian. A friend of mine who went to Duke Divinity School and who worked at a church in Chapel Hill, NC for a time once remarked that he wished Ehrman would have attended his church in Chapel Hill because he had to deal with Ehrman every week in the minds of the parishoners. Ehrman should have to deal with him as well!
I do believe that Dr. Ehrman is a gift to the Church. The principle reason is not because of his scholarly insights. I don’t know that he is introducing terribly new arguments about the problem of evil or the diversity of perspectives on the meaning of Jesus in the early centuries of Christianity (though he, among others, does seem to elevate the status of some of them) or the variety in testimony within the New Testament on the person and work of Jesus, which the new book is about.
Recently, I listened to the Fresh Air podcast from last week in which Ehrman sketches some of the “hidden contradictions in the Bible” that the subtitle of his book refers to. He does nothing more than point out the differences in the Gospel accounts, both in details (like the events of Jesus’ crucifixion or appearance after his resurrection) and in theme (pressing together into false harmony the variant potraits of Jesus one gets when honestly reading each account on its own—Matthew without reference to Mark or Luke, John without reference to the synoptics, etc). Don’t get me wrong, pointing out the obvious is not as easy as we usually take it to be. And I would agree with him that many folks do in fact press the Gospel accounts together in an attempt to create a “harmonized” account. The ironic and obvious problem is the discord produced when the individual portraits are rejected in that “harmonizing” attempt.
But the important thing to note is that there is nothing “hidden” about the contradictions in the biblical accounts. Nor is there anything new about naming and addressing them. In fact, plenty of orthodox, even evangelical, pastors and academics do so all the time. I know no pastors or academics who will respond with surprise or defensiveness about Ehrman’s having “pointed out” these contradictions. Perhaps I’m too accustomed to the combination of mainline and evangelical persons in a denomination like mine, The United Methodist Church (I suspect a similar experience in other mainline denominations). To the contrary, most of us have learned about them quite naturally through observation and study and courses in seminary. We’ve also learned that the Spirit working within the Church included four Gospels in the biblical canon for a reason—one person’s portrait of Jesus seemed insufficient to get a robust understanding of him. And we’ve learned that the Gospel accounts are literary portraits that are grounded in history, tethered to basic facts, but with room for literary artistry (and they are fantastic examples) from the careful and creative theologians who we know today as Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
So the reason Ehrman is a gift to the church is at least two-fold.
First, his skills as a gifted scholar and a compelling lecturer challenge our scholars to offer creative and cogent writing on the subjects Ehrman addresses in his own work, answering the questions that his scholarship raises. For example: How reliable (or not) is Ehrman’s narrative on the variety of “early Christianities”? When is he helpful as an interpreter of Jesus and when is he off base?
Second, his ability to write for a popular audience and attract attention to his perspective challenges pastors to tackle issues we may have long avoided in front of laypersons like (related to this most recent book) the discrepancies among the Gospels. Sometimes (many times?) we pastors have either been hesitant to lead our people to learn about some of these matters or have outright avoided it. But if our search is for truth and we believe the Triune God, the God of Jesus, to be the God of truth, then we need not avoid questions as they are raised. In doing so, we are more faithful and stronger in our faith in the end.