Monday, June 24, 2013

Jesus, Interrupted by Bart D. Ehrman

Subtitle: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible and Why We Don’t Know About Them

            Religion 101, my first semester at a conservative Christian college, I was in for quite a surprise.
            Moses didn’t actually the Pentateuch.  Parts of the book of Isaiah could not possibly have been written by the prophet Isaiah.  The books of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were not actually written by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, and in fact were not eye-witness accounts at all.  Paul did not write 1st and 2nd Timothy, but a later writer forged these books under Paul’s name.  2nd Peter (and probably 1st Peter) could not have been written by the apostle Peter, but was written by a Christian living much later.

            All this was not from a skeptic or an unbeliever, but from the religion department of a conservative Christian school affiliated with a conservative Christian seminary.

            And yet this was completely different to everything I had been taught in 12 years of Christian schools, 2 years of Confirmation, and a lifetime of weekly church and Sunday School.

            And then I realized, this was just one semester in an introductory class.  My pastor had gone through 4 years of seminary.  He must know all this information.  Why had he never bothered to tell us before?

            This same question is what drove Bart Ehrman to write the book Jesus, Interrupted: Why is there such a huge gap between what is taught in seminaries, and what is taught at church every Sunday?

            Because of my own personal experience, I could identify with what Ehrman writes in his introductory chapter.

            Every year, Ehrman asserts, first year students all across the country are shocked, just as I was, to learn what is really being taught at mainstream protestant seminaries.
            “[Christian] students are in for a rude awakening.  Mainline Protestant seminaries in this country are notorious for challenging students’ cherished beliefs about the Bible….These seminaries teach serious, hard-core Bible scholarship.  They don’t pander to piety….
            The approach taken to the Bible in almost all Protestant (and now Catholic) mainline seminaries is what is called the “historical-critical” method….
            A very large percentage of seminarians are completely blind-sided by the historical critical method. They come in with the expectation of learning the pious truths of the Bible so that they can pass them along in their sermons, as their own pastors have done for them. Nothing prepares them for historical criticism.  To their surprise they learn, instead of material for sermons, all the results of what historical critics have established on the basis of centuries of research.  The Bible is filled with discrepancies, many of them irreconcilable contradictions. Moses did not write the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Old Testament) and Matthew, Mark, Luke and John did not write the Gospels.  There are other books that did not make it into the Bible that at one time or another were considered canonical…The Exodus probably did not happen as described in the Old Testament. The conquest of the Promised Land is probably based on legend. The Gospels are at odds on numerous points and contain nonhistorical matter. It is hard to know whether Moses actually ever existed and what, exactly, the historical Jesus taught.  The historical narratives of the Old Testament are filled with legendary fabrications and the book of Acts in the New Testament contains historically unreliable information about the life and teachings of Paul.  Many of the books of the New Testament are pseudonymous—written not by the apostles but by later writers claiming to be the apostles.  The list goes on.” (p.3-6).

            But then, curiously, once these students graduate from seminary, and become pastors, they never communicate their historical knowledge of the Bible to their congregations.
            To quote from Bart Ehrman again:
            “One of the most amazing and perplexing features of mainstream Christianity is that seminarians who learn the historical-critical method in their Bible classes appear to forget all about it when it comes time for them to be pastors.  They are taught critical approaches to Scripture, they learn about the discrepancies and contradictions, they discover all sorts of historical errors and mistakes....They learn all this, and yet when they enter church ministry they appear to put it back on the shelf….pastors are, as a rule, reluctant to teach what they learned about the Bible in seminary” (p. 13-14).

            Ehrman also talks about his own experience teaching an Introduction to the New Testament Course.
            “The information and perspectives I present in the class are nothing radical. They are the views found among critical scholars who approach the Bible historically—whether the scholars themselves are believers or unbelievers, Protestants, Catholic, Jewish, agnostic, or whatever else.  They are the views I learned in seminary and the views that are taught at divinity schools and universities throughout the country.  But they are views that my students have never heard before, even though most of these students have spent a good deal of their lives in Sunday School and church” (p. 14).

            The purpose of Ehrman’s book, then?
            “[Most Americans] are…. almost completely in the dark about what scholars have been saying about the Bible for the past two centuries.  This book is meant to help redress that problem. It could be seen as my attempt to let the cat out of the bag.” (p.2)

            The rest of the book follows this theme.  It covers a number of disparate subjects, but all of them fit around the theme of New Testament scholarship that is widely known in seminaries, but never taught in churches.
            Chapter 2 is devoted to all the factual contradictions in the New Testament.
            Chapter 3 explains all the theological contradictions between different New Testament books.
            Chapter 4 tells why scholars believe most of the New Testament books were not written by their supposed author.
            Chapter 5 explains current scholarship on who the historical Jesus was, and what it is possible to know about him.
            Chapter 6 talks about the very human process by which the canon of the New Testament was eventually decided.
            And Chapter 7 explains how the churches doctrines (the divinity of Christ, the Trinity, heaven and hell) evolved over time during the first 4 centuries of Christianity.
            Chapter 8 addresses the problem Is Faith Possible. (I’ll deal with this in more detail below.)

            (Because Ehrman is a New Testament scholar, he focuses only on the New Testament.  He hints at the historical problems in the Old Testament in his introduction, but then completely ignores the Old Testament for the rest of the book.    Anyone seeking information on the historical accuracy of the Old Testament will have to look elsewhere—I recommend The Unauthorized Version by Robin LaneFox, combined with the Yale University Old Testament lectures by Christine Hayes.)

            As Bart Ehrman himself makes very clear throughout, there is no new scholarship in this book.  This is what is currently being taught in seminaries across the country.  But how much of this information will be new to readers, and how shocking it will be to them, obviously depends on their background     
           In my case, I actually learned a lot from this book.  Although I was aware that some of these issues existed, I was aware of it only in the vaguest of terms, and it helped to see Bart Ehrman lay out all the issues as clearly as he does.

            I’ve heard other people say this is Bart Ehrman’s best book, and I would have to agree.  If you’ve got the time and inclination, then Misquoting Jesus is also worth reading, but if you’ve only got it in you to read one Bart Ehrman book, this is the one to go for.  It’s an excellent and readable crash course in all the historical and theological problems with the New Testament.  If you don’t know a lot about New Testament scholarship, and you want to be knowledgeable, this book is a must read.

Other Notes

* On the whole, I think this book is really a must read.  But that being said, there were one or two points that could have been explained better.  One of the things I remember very clearly about my own religion 101class was the professor’s explanation of the Synoptic problem.  The professor explained the reasons why it looks like Matthew and Luke were both copying from Mark.  And since according to Church tradition Matthew was an eyewitness of Jesus’ ministry, and John Mark was not, it didn’t make sense that an eyewitness was copying from someone who wasn’t even there.  The professor concluded this was reason to doubt the traditional authorships of the Gospels.
            Bart Ehrman also believes Matthew and Luke were copying from Mark, and he says as much, but he never explains how scholars arrived at this conclusion.  Since Bart Ehrman is writing for the general public, I’m a little worried that someone without background knowledge of the Synoptic problem might miss the significance of this.
            To be fair, Ehrman does address this elsewhere.   In his lecture series on the New Testament, Ehrman does a very good job of clearly explaining why it is impossible for Matthew, Mark, and Luke to be all independently write passages that are word for word identical unless someone is copying from someone else.  He still doesn’t explain in that lecture why scholars believe in Markan priority, but since that information is readily available elsewhere I suppose it doesn’t matter all that much.  (In fact a quick google search shows a number of informative websites that clearly detail the reasons why scholars believe Mark was written first, and Matthew and Luke were both copying from Mark--see HERE for the wikipedia article on Markan priority, and for more hard hitting linguistic analysis see HERE and HERE.)

* I previously gave a mixed review to one of Bart Ehrman’s later books, Forged .  And after reading this book, I’m even more puzzled as to why Bart Ehrman felt the need to write Forged.  Chapter 4 of Jesus, Interrupted,Who Wrote the Bible, contains essentially all of the major arguments that Bart Ehrman would later repeat in Forged, making Forged redundant and unnecessary. 
            There are one or two points interesting points in Forged that are not in this book, but it’s not worth wading through 300 pages to get only one or two new points.  (And actually there are some points in this book about the authorship of the Gospels that Ehrman does not repeat in Forged.  If an editor combined the relevant parts of both books, and cut out all the filler, maybe one interesting book on Biblical authorship could have been made.  But unless you like a lot of repetition in your reading, I wouldn’t recommend anyone to read both books.)

Contradictions in the Bible (Some Personal Reflections)

            Not only does the Bible contradict historical and archeological records (the census in Luke, the Exodus and the conquest of Canaan, et cetera), it also contradicts itself quite often.  And yet, as Bart Ehrman points out, most people never even notice these internal contradictions.
            “It’s amazing how internal problems like these, if you’re not alerted to them, are so easily passed by when you read the Gospels, but how when someone point them out they seem so obvious.  Students often ask me, “Why didn’t I see this before.” (p.8)
            “Why is it that casual, and even avid, readers of the Bible never detect these discrepancies, some of which may seem obvious once they are pointed out?  My view is that it has to do with the way people read these books.  Most people simply read here and there in the Bible—open it up, choose a passage, read it, and try to figure out what it means.  There is little or no effort to make a detailed comparison with other, similar passages, in other books.  You read a snippet here, a snippet there, and it all sounds like the Bible.” (p.20-21)

            I’m glad to hear Bart Ehrman say this.  I used to think it was just me.

            In 8th Grade, our Bible teacher pointed out to us how all 4 of the Gospels contradicted each other on the resurrection account.  At first I didn’t believe him, but he went through and showed us methodically how all of the accounts were contradictory to each other, and then my next thought was, “Why did I never notice this before?”
            The thing that got me was that I knew each of these stories individually.  After years of Sunday School, I knew the story of how the women came to the empty tomb, and an Angel told them that Jesus was not there because he had been raised. 
            But I also knew equally well the story from John when the women went to an empty tomb, and there was no angel to explain to them what was happening, so Mary Magdalene was outside crying until Jesus started talking to her, but Mary thought he was the gardener so she told him, “They have taken my Lord away, and I do not know where they have put him!”  And then she suddenly realized the gardener was Jesus.
            And yet, despite knowing both of these stories independently of each other, I never put two and two together and realized the contradiction until it was pointed out to me.

            I felt even stupider years later when I was in my late 20s, and listening to a lecture on great literature that talked about some of the contradictions in the Old Testament.  Before this, I had never realized that Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 were completely different contradictory stories, even though I knew both stories intimately.
            I knew the story in Genesis 1 about how God had created the whole world in 6 days, and that the order of creation was plants, fish and birds, animals, man.  (Theistic evolutionist Christians, which included many of my teachers, are fond of using this order to show that evolution and the Bible are not incompatible.)
            But I also knew equally well the story in Genesis 2 of how Adam was created first, and how God created the animals later because Adam was lonely.  I had heard this story many times before in Sunday School and in children’s Bible story books. 

            I’m embarrassed to say I never realized the contradiction on my own, even though it seems so, so, so obvious now. 
            So I’m relieved to hear Bart Ehrman say this kind of experience is not uncommon.
            What was everyone else’s experience like?  Any similar stories out there?  Or were you brighter than me and realized these contradictions on your own?

Is Faith Possible?
          (I’ve saved this section for last because I think it is the most difficult to untangle.  Feel free to skip over it.)

            The last chapter of this book poses a very interesting question: Is Faith Possible?  Does the knowledge of all the internal contradictions and historical problems of the Bible destroy faith?

            Despite what you or I might conclude about this, the answer is apparently yes—faith must still be possible—because the seminaries already know about these problems and teach them to their students, and yet Christianity continues to exist.  (Indeed as I already related above, the very people who first taught me about many of these issues were Christians.)
            Bart Ehrman himself says he remained a practicing Christian for many years after he became aware of the historical problems with the Bible.  (He claims he eventually lost his faith not because of historical issues but on a different issue altogether—the problem of suffering.)  And Ehrman still has many friends and colleagues who know everything he does and the Bible, but continue to believe.

            Describing his friends, Bart Ehrman: “they [my two friends] are both smarter than I, better read than I, more sophisticated philosophically than I…..They both would have, and do have, no problem with the historical information I have laid out in this book.  And they both unashamedly call themselves Christians.  Ask them if they believe in God, they would say yes. Think Christ is God? Yes. Think he is the Lord? Yes. Faith is not a matter of smarts” (p. 278).

            In concluding his chapter on the contradictions in the Bible, Ehrman writes: “Does this [all the Bible’s contradictions] mean that it is impossible any longer for a person to be a Christian? Only Christians of a certain persuasion—such as many of those among whom I live, in the American South—would ever think to ask such a question. But the answer, again, is decidedly no. A Christian dependent on the inerrancy of the Bible probably cannot survive the reality of discrepancies. But there are lots of other forms of the Christian faith, many of them unscathed by the fact that the Bible is not a completely prefect book.  I will deal with this at greater length in my final chapter.” (p. 59)

            When the final chapter finally comes around, however, the answer is disappointing.
            To begin with, I have trouble understanding how someone can be a Christian and still believe the Bible is full of errors.
            I was brought up to believe in an inerrant view of the Bible. (More or less.  Some of my teachers sympathetic to theistic evolution would say that Genesis 1 & 2 were supposed to be metaphors, but this was not taught as an error in the Bible.  This was God making a conscious choice to avoid overloading ancient peoples with too much science.)
            I know there are Christians out there who aren’t inerrantists, but I don’t really understand how their thinking works. 
(Perhaps this is just because of my upbringing--that I was never exposed to the anti-inerrantist position, and so may not have a full understanding of it.  But my general view is that if I'm going to believe that the Bible is full of historical and factual errors anyway, than I might as well just be an agnostic and limit my beliefs to what there is reasonable evidence for.)

            This is probably a subject for a whole different book, but I don’t think Bart Ehrman did a very good job of explaining or defending Christian faith minus inerrantism.  (Perhaps now that Bart Ehrman has moved on to officially become an agnostic, he can’t really defend a faith he no longer has.  Maybe someone else needs to pick up the mantle and defend a scholarly view of Christian faith.)

            I have a co-worker who is a strong Christian and fond of quoting Bible versus to me.  And whenever I point out contradictions or errors in the Bible to him, he just smiles and says, “Sorry Joel, that’s not going to work on me.  I’m not an inerrantist.  I believe that because humans were involved in copying down the Bible, human mistakes were made.”
            And yet he still believes (strongly) that homosexuality is wrong.  He still preaches to the rest of us about sexual morality and abstinence.  He still believes Christ died on the cross to forgive our sins, and he still believes all non-Christians are damned for all eternity in hell.
            I’ve never understood how he can be so sure about any of this given that he admits human errors are in the Bible.

            And regarding the Gospels, how could you say to people: “We have these four anonymous documents from sometime in the late first century.  We don’t know who wrote them, but we’re sure they weren’t eye-witnesses.  And all four of them contradict each other and have completely different theologies.  But the fate of your soul for all of eternity rests on whether or not you believe in them.”?

            Again, I know these types of Christians are out there.  I just can’t wrap my head around their thinking.

            Bart Ehrman describes his own views during the period after he lost his belief in the inerrancy of the Bible, but before he left the church altogether:  “I came to think of the Christian message about God, Christ, and the salvation he brings as a kind of religious “myth,” or group of myths—a set of stories, views, and perspectives that are both unproven and unprovable, but also un-disprovable—that could, and should inform and guide my life and thinking.
            I continued to believe in a literal God, though I was less and less sure what could actually be said about him (or her or it).  And I continued to believe that Jesus himself certainly existed. But the religion built up around God and Jesus was based, I came to believe, on various myths, not historical facts.  Jesus’ death was not a myth, but the idea that it was a death that brought about salvation was a myth.  It could not be historically proved or disproved, but it was a powerful story that I thought could and should govern the way I look and the world and live my life….
            Salvation, for me, became less and less a question of whether I would go to heaven or hell when I die.  I came to realize that these concepts were also, in a sense, myths.  There is not literally a place of eternal torment where God, or the demons doing his will, will torture poor souls for 30 trillion years (as just the beginning) for sins they committed for 30 years.  What kind of never-dying eternal divine Nazi would a God like that be?...
            God himself was a myth for me.  I certainly thought he existed, but his existence could not be proved or disproved. He was the force of goodness and awe and wonder in the world.  He was the one who was above all else, far beyond what we could imagine, as we gaze out into the evening sky and consider the billions of stars and the billions of galaxies.  He was above and beyond it all, a force of good and goodness in the world.” (p275-277)

            This is what Ehrman was describing himself as when he was still a Christian—albeit after he lost his initial inerrant fundamentalist faith—but before he became an agnostic.
            However, to me this sounds like what I feel as an agnostic now.  Maybe some of the myths in the Bible are true, but who can be sure?  Maybe there is a sort of God who acts as a force for good in the universe, but it can’t be proved or disproved.
            I’m not really sure how you could call this faith.  You certainly couldn’t launch missionary efforts with this kind of attitude.  (Where I live in Cambodia, I occasionally overhear missionaries talking to each other about church issues at Western style restaurants and coffee shops, reminding me that there is still a whole profession of people who think converting others to their religion should be their life’s work.)

            To be sure, there is the possibility that God exists.  But acknowledging the possibility of something is different than having faith in something.  To have faith in something, you need to be absolutely sure.
            And while all the historical problems of the Bible don’t disprove the central message of Christianity per se, wouldn’t they at least introduce a strong element of doubt?
            All 4 Gospels contradict each other on Jesus’ resurrection.  Therefore, at the very least, 3 of them must be wrong.  And if we admit that 3 of the accounts are wrong, then might not all of them be wrong?  You have to at least consider the possibility, no? 

            And this gets all the stickier when you consider that Christianity isn’t the only game in town.  You don’t have to be a Christian—if the internal contradictions in Christianity become too much for you, you can always convert to Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, or Islam.  In order to keep faith in Christianity you not only have to argue that it’s better than nothing, but that it’s better than all the alternatives.

            When attempting to have a logical talk about these issues, part of the problem is that, inspite of all the work churches have done over the centuries to nail down doctrines, no two people define their Christian faith the same way.  Some Christians may believe that the Bible contains no errors and everyone who disbelieves it will go to hell.  Some believe it contain human errors, but is still necessary for salvation.  And some Christians believe that salvation is extended to other religions as well, and that faith and religion are separate issues.
            But my experience of Christianity is that it lays forth specific doctrines which are predicated on a belief that God intervened in human history. 
            Well then, did these events happen, or didn’t they?  And if they happened, then what is the historical evidence?  And if there historical evidence is questionable, then I think agnosticism is the only option.
            That’s not to say that there aren’t some very smart people who believe in Christianity.  I have a lot of friends from my religious school days who were (and are) smarter than me and continue to believe.  And my religious professors were a lot smarter than I am (to put it mildly). 
            But then, the same could be said about any religion. There are some extremely smart people who are Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, Atheists, and even Mormons.
            For better or for worse, human beings are not robots, and we simply do not change our whole world view overnight just because we get some new information.  As long as Christianity is meeting someone’s emotional needs, they are very unlikely to leave the church simply because they discover historical problems with the Bible.

            This is how we humans operate, but it doesn’t mean it’s right.  A lot of very intelligent people are also Mormons: professors, doctors, lawyers, congressman, and republican nominees for President.  It doesn’t mean that the many historical problems with Mormonism should be any less relevant to the truth of the faith.

Link of the Day
Noam Chomsky: University Commencement Address 
And Obama's Crackdown on Whistleblower: The NSA Four reveal how a toxic mix of cronyism and fraud blinded the agency before 9/11.


Whisky Prajer said...

I'm not sure why I feel compelled to comment, except that I, too, "unashamedly call myself a Christian." The qualifier depends on the context, of course: there are plenty of shame-inducing occasions for anyone who calls herself a Christian. But that's the danger in any ideology one finally lays claim to, with the exception of the untested.

The question, "Is faith still possible?" depends on the definition of faith, and the degree to which a person is willing to absorb cognitive dissonance. Those are theological questions, which I have little use for. Rabbis and Seminary profs are fond of saying, "The answer lies in further study." For some, that might indeed be the case.

My knee-jerk retort: who says "faith" is what makes a person "Christian"?

I have some sympathy for Ehrman's fallback position. Robertson Davies does a much subtler (and vastly more entertaining) job of exploring the nuances and possibilities, I'd say. In fact, I'm content with you ignoring every book recommendation I make if you only read The Deptford Trilogy.

To my mind the intersection of human consciousness and behavior is fundamentally more interesting (and problematic) than the technicalities that Ehrman obsesses over. Altho those technicalities often inspire unexpected behavior(s), individual and mass consciousness are informed by so much more -- assuming, of course, that there is individual consciousness. Erik Davis keeps the silt from settling in my own thoughts. So does Houston Smith, to a lesser degree.

Hm: word prompt, "erprote exorcist"

Whisky Prajer said...

Hey, I just noticed how your byline reads, "Jesus, Interrupted by Bart D. Ehrman" -- ha!

Joel said...

First of all, to be fair to Bart Ehrman, he goes out of his way in his last chapter to explicitly make the point that all of the historical problems and internal contradictions he is raising about the Bible should not be a problem for faith (and for many of his scholarly friends are not a problem for faith.)
I'm the one who is arguing for a connection between the historical probability of what is recorded in the New Testament, and the possibility of faith.

You, on the other hand, are obviously coming at this from a different perspective, and you're reading list looks like it's a lot different than mine. So we may struggle to find common ground here, but I'll do my best.

If I'm reading you correctly, you're saying that our actions are ultimately more important to the cosmos than our faith in certain intellectual doctrines.
I suspect that you are defining "Christianity" a lot differently than my background (or yours as well, from what I've gathered.)

Part of the problem with having these discussions on faith or religion is that the very nebulousness of the subject makes it difficult to have a straightforward dialogue. I think I would have to learn a lot more about your perspective (and possibly read some or your recommendations) before I could even attempt to offer feedback on it.

It may also be a problem of semantics. I sometimes get the impression that what some of my more liberal Christian friends are defining as "Christianity" is what I would consider more to be "hopeful agnosticism" or a kind of Deism that borrows some aspects from the Bible and disregards others.
I'm not opposed to this. I'm not an atheist. I believe there is definitely a possibility God exists, and that there is the possibility there is some divine truth hidden in the world's religions. I just think it's more honest to call this sort of belief agnosticism.

Joel said...

Jesus, Interrupted by Bart D. Ehrman....I just got that now.

Whisky Prajer said...

Yeah, a straightforward dialogue might not be possible.

Every once in a while I wade into a site like Christianity Today, just to take the temperature of the water and see how long I can stand it. My patience for these places and their ideas (and "calls to action") is growing increasingly thin, in part because interacting directly with their ideological platform is getting to be an almost insurmountable challenge.

And yet, that's where I came from. I grew up and identified as an Evangelical up into my early 20s. I would have been completely on-board with everything on the CT site when I was 12, and probably until I was 16 or so. The Evangelical strain of Judeo-Christian values and cosmic presuppositions is what framed my understanding and informed every choice I made. Since that is what imprinted my consciousness, that is still what informs my choices, if (sometimes) in increasingly obscure and indirect fashion. To call myself something other than a "Christian" would be absurd. To the degree I can think, those thoughts will always be infused with and even directed by the Evangelical Mennonite Christian virus that infected me as a child.

I'm thinking of how Roger Ebert identified himself as "Catholic" right to his final days. Of course, he also identified himself as "agnostic," too. Your "Christian Agnostic" definition might be apt, although I find it too rigid for my own thought experiments. When someone like this guy asks, "Just how Catholic was Roger Ebert?" and answers that with, "Basically, he wasn't," I get a little peeved, even if, to be fair, he engaged Ebert with Ebert's own linguistic simplicity.

I don't think of myself as Agnostic, but maybe I am. To my mind I'm probably more in line with Christian Pantheism, or maybe selective Christian Panentheism. That makes me a Heretic, but since that's also an integral part of my DNA, I'm quite fine with that. The larger mystery of how consciousness affects behavior, and vice versa, is (I still suspect) the launching point for most of these discussions.

Joel said...

I can respect that, and I suppose to a large extent it's true of me as well. The world view of Hinduism or Buddhism is so completely alien to what was imprinted on my brain early on that I rarely spend much time wondering about the truth value of it. instead, to the extent I contemplate the possibility of the divine, it usually takes on the form of an omniscient sky Deity similar to traditional Christianity. The idea of cycles of death and rebirth never really occupy too much of my thoughts. So I'm a product of Western Christian thought as much as anyone else.