why bart ehrman is a gift to the church

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.

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3 thoughts on “why bart ehrman is a gift to the church

  1. “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.”

    That was exactly my thought. Ehrman has made a cottage industry out of taking various forms of historical criticism (source, text, redaction, etc.) and jazzing them up for a popular audience. I mean, look at this list of his recent titles:

    – “Lost Scriptures: Books that did not make it into the New Testament”
    – “Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths we Never Knew”
    – “Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why”
    – “Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (And Why We Don’t Know About Them)”

    You could use those as chapter titles in a first year New Testament seminary textbook. All he’s doing is making elementary biblical studies look sexy so it will sell thousands of copies, and then going on Fresh Air so Terri Gross can ooh and ahh over him.

    In all seriousness, Guy, I appreciate the charitable way you approach Ehrman and what he does. I find it very difficult to feel the same way myself. All I get is this nagging sense that he must constantly think, “Well, I lost my faith getting a Ph.D and now all I know how to do is teach a book I don’t believe in anymore. Might as well make a buck off of it.” I probably shouldn’t care, except that there are a lot of unchurched and nonbelieving folks out there who will pick up one of Ehrman’s books and read it only to confirm their worst suspicions about the Christian faith. And that’s frustrating to me.

  2. Thanks, Andrew. I have mixed feelings about Ehrman. On the one hand, I do appreciate the courses I’ve listened to from him from The Teaching Company—The NT, After the NT: The Writings of the Apostolic Fathers, From Jesus to Constantine: History of Early Christianity. He’s a good guide to the work as literature and as history, plus I find him to be a really engaging lecturer.

    That said, there is definitely the other hand. And I think I share your exact frustrations. In particular, I’m frustrated by the truth behind the quote from my post that you highlight. On that note, you did see Willimon’s review of “God’s Problem,” right? I was glad to see someone with the chops to do it lay into him like the good Bishop did. And I appreciated Willimon’s tone too because it seemed as if he was refusing to take Ehrman more seriously than he thought he should be.

    In the end, I think he can serve as a helpful kick in the pants for we pastors and teachers of the Church to be more transparent about how we read and hear the Scriptures as a Church. After all, most of us have experienced a more exciting, compelling faith due to learning more about the nature of the Scriptures. I will enjoy seeing the day that our laity yawn with us at the next book title, recognizing how uncontroversial it actually is.

  3. Ehrman is off the mark on the Bible because he refers to the Greek manuscripts for his research and not the Hebrew and Aramec manuscripts which most, if not all of the Bible was written in. Lee Strobel has a great book called “The Case For The Real Jesus” which Ehrman`s errors are pointed out in detail.

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