Bart Ehrman's "Jesus Interrupted"

Gary Kamiya offers an interesting discussion of Professor Bart Ehrman's latest book--Jesus Interrupted at Salon, which includes an interview with Ehrman. As Kamiya notes, the new book will not be well received in many corners:

Ehrman's new book, "Jesus, Interrupted," will not lead many evangelicals and conservative Christians to invite him to talk to their Bible study groups. Picking up where "Misquoting Jesus" let off, it goes beyond the Bible's textual problems to look at deeper doctrinal inconsistencies and contradictions. Ehrman points out that Mark and Luke had radically different attitudes toward Jesus' death: Mark saw him as in doubt and despair on the way to the cross, while Luke saw him as calm. Mark and Paul saw Jesus' death as offering an atonement for sin, while Luke did not. Matthew believed that Jesus' followers had to keep the Jewish law to enter the kingdom of Heaven, a view categorically rejected by Paul. The conventional response to this is to try to "harmonize" the Bible by smashing all four Gospels together. But as Ehrman argues, this only creates a bogus "fifth Gospel" that doesn't exist.

Ehrman's critique is far from over. He points out that many of the books in the New Testament were not even written by their putative authors: only eight of its 27 books are almost certain to have been written by the people whose names are attached to them. He writes that scholars have tended to avoid the word "forged" because of its negative connotations, but argues convincingly that much of the Bible is, in fact, forged.

Then there's the problem of "which Bible?" As Ehrman notes, there were many other Gospels floating around in the days of the early Christians, many of which claimed to be written by apostles, and there's no historical reason to believe that some of these non-canonical gospels were any less worthy of being part of the Bible than the books that made it in. Later Christians excised some texts and included others for various reasons. Once one begins to look critically at what was left out and why, it becomes impossible to deny that the biblical canon was constructed by humans for human purposes.

Finally, and most devastatingly, Ehrman points out that "some of the most important Christian doctrines, such as that of a suffering Messiah, the divinity of Christ, the trinity and the existence of heaven and hell," were not held by Jesus himself and were not contemporaneous with him. They developed later, "as the Church grew and came to be transformed into a new religion rather than a sect of Judaism." The doctrine of the trinity only appears once in the New Testament, and the doctrine that Jesus is equal but not identical to God is found in none of the four Gospels.

Read the full article (and interview) here.

Comments (14)

Ehrman, like Funk (founder of the Jesus Seminar), is a former fundamentalist. When we found that the historical reality was different from what his fundamentalist church taught, his reaction was to reject the faith altogether. It's unfortunate, but it happens. As Anglicans we believe that disciplined and careful historical study is an asset to our understanding of the faith.

Unfortunately, several of the claims in just this brief snippet are either exaggerated or disputed.

Most importantly from our perspective, Ehrman seems to have either no or a heavily atrophied theology of the Church. Yes, human were involved in picking and choosing between texts in assembling the canon. Yes, humans were involved in putting language around doctrinal formulations that are mere suggestions in Scripture. But we affirm the believe in a Holy Spirit and in a Risen Christ, neither of which are absent from the Church and assist us in understand God's self-revelation.

Wot Derek said!

Fundamentalism and atheism often form (what I believe is) a sick cycle:

Fundamentalists fall into atheism.

In turn, fundamentalists frequently draw from those w/ a facile atheism.

The claims of neither group seem to have anything to do w/ me, as an Episcopalian.

JC Fisher

As a book reviewer, I would love to have the opportunity to review (have a conversation with) the book itself. A three page Salon article is too short to suffice for the subjects at hand, a blog comment still less sufficient.

Erhman once sought to "remythologize the Bible in modern terms," but, at some point, his myth could not account for a world in which God allows the innocent to undergo extremes of pain. Over the past 2000 years (admittedly in disappointing fits and starts) fewer and fewer innocents have had to suffer such extremes. The technological advancement of our Judeo-Christian society, reinventing its myth again and again along the way in order to "catch up with God's continuing revelation," has greatly reduced infant mortality, disease and violence against innocents. It has also made us correspondingly more sensitive to these issues -- we who live lives so free of pain that we could hardly imagine the brief devastated existences of those who gathered to hear the words of Jesus of Nazareth.

To effect this progress immediately with a "wave of a magic wand" would have created, neither progress, nor attendant maturity, but a world of paper-dolls with which God plays. Surely He (She, It) knew that this option was open to Him (Her, It) and yet He chose to have children rather than dolls -- children whose flesh and blood make them available to all the evils of life.

Bart Ehrman is not saying anything new. He is simply communicating the results of modern Biblical scholarship to a broader audience. He is no simple atheist and respects those of us who still do teach provided we don't deny facts. And he understands that there have always been many Christianities.


Gary Paul Gilbert


"As Ehrman repeatedly points out, none of what he is saying is the least bit academically controversial. Even scholars who are devout Christians agree, and have for decades. The field of biblical textual studies is 300 years old; Ehrman's books simply present the accepted findings of that field for a mass audience. His own scholarly credentials are impeccable: As the James A. Gray Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, he has a deep and extensive knowledge of the field, knows the ancient languages the Bible was written in, and has published widely."

Gary,

Some of the things that Ehrman teaches are not new. For instance, it's been quite clear to interpreters for the past two thousand years that the four gospels did not present the Jesus story in the same way. Indeed, the fact that not one but four gospels with different emphases and different narratives shows that a) the church valued diversity in its understand of Jesus (but within limits) and b) the gospels were and always have been first and foremost theological understandings of Jesus, not flat histories as some try to make them out.

Other things that he teaches--like the claim that only 8 of the books were written by their authors--is old, yes, stretching back to F.C. Baur but is disputed by intellegent biblical scholars, Christian and atheist alike.

If he were, as you say, "simply communicating the results of modern Biblical scholarship to a broader audience" (and again--he's not) that would be one thing. But a further issue is how and why he teaches it. He and others like him (here the Jesus Seminar springs quickly to mind) teach with with the aim or air of edification but of "debunking"--more often then not sensationalized debunking at that.

Nobody is trying to "hide" the results of biblical scholarship and there are a host of scholars who teach these results with the aim of building up rather than tearing down the Body of Christ. Folks like Luke Timothy Johnson, Mark Allen Powell, and Walter Brueggemann jump quickly to mind...

Oops--can't type tonight...

Line in the third paragraph should read: "He and others like him (here the Jesus Seminar springs quickly to mind) teach not with the aim or air of edification but of "debunking""

Are we sure this is a new book and not just a reprint of something from the 1960's?

This brief snippet sounds not at all novel, as several commentators have pointed out. As for our canonical four gospels, they were chosen for a simple reason: they were clearly the oldest in the churches' possession.
We need some fresh perspectives. Lately I have been reading "Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes" by Kenneth Bailey, a very different take from a cultural and literary POV. Includes materials from Arabic and Syriac translations, as well as commentaries by Middle Eastern authors we normally do not read alongside the Jesus Seminar--but should.
Pierre Whalon

Derek, The job of an academic is neither to build up nor destroy sectarian institutions. As scholars they are free to believe, not believe, or even remain indifferent. Their job is to look at evidence. This is what the Jesus Seminar does.

Gary Paul Gilbert

Gary,

The point is that Bart Ehrman and the Jesus Seminar are no less agenda driven in their configuration and interpretation of the evidence than the faculty of the average Southern Baptist Seminary.

And should be read with the same grain of salt.

Dear Matt, Lumping Bart Ehrman with the Jesus Seminar together is to paint with a broad brush. For example, Crossan is very different from Borg, each having their own particular virtues. The Southern Baptists are in no way like the professors you seem to despise. I have learned much from reading Crossan, Borg, and others even when I have not agreed with some of their conclusions.

Gary Paul Gilbert

Gary,

You're confusing several important things. First, academics search for truth--and their efforts in those matters are weighed by the guild. Yes, personal beliefs should not influence their findings. Second, academics do have personal commitments, though, and these often direct what they research and what questions they bring to the table. Beliefs clearly come into play here. Third, when academics write, they do so for an audience and with intentions. Folks like Ehrman and Powell both write for laity. Ehrman seeks to tear down, Powell seeks to build up. Is thisPowell's "job"? As a committed layman as well as a great biblical scholar, he'd say yes...

Gary,

I don't despise those professors. And I am aware that there are considerable differences among them. I just don't find their scholarship all that compelling, not least because I do not find it to all that objective. Or better, since I am distrustful of the notion of "objective" scholarship, I do not find theirs all that fair when engaging the evidence that does not fit their paradigm.

I will say that I find Bart Ehrman's construction of an "historical Jesus" more credible than Borg's or Crossan's.

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