Is Bart Ehrman misquoting Jesus?

Wheaton College has a host of interesting alumni whom the college would be happy not to claim. Wes Craven attended the school, and was an important editor of the school's literary journal. Representative Jim McDermott is a Democrat at Washington who is far-left of even those who consider themselves on the left at Wheaton.

But the guy who tops the list by far is Bart Ehrman. Ehrman graduated magna cum laude from Wheaton College in 1978, and went on to receive his M.Div (1981) and Ph.D (1985) from -- here the similarities become uncanny -- Princeton Theological Seminary. Now Ehrman has an interesting history. He had a conversion experience in middle school that led him to accept the tenants of conservative evangelicalism, specifically biblical inerrancy. Consequently, he attended Wheaton as one who believed that the Bible was free from all error -- much like myself in my first year.

Bart Ehrman is now an agnostic. His investigations into the history of Christianity and the formation of the Bible resulted in his rejection of the faith altogether. He went from fundamentalism to agnosticism, a path that is not uncommon for those who grow up in strictly evangelical homes but go on to receive academic training in religion. Ehrman is now professor of religion at UNC Chapel Hill.

His latest work is Misquoting Jesus, a follow-up to his previous polemical work, The Lost Christianities. Misquoting Jesus has received heavy attention in the media, in large part because the work goes so well with the current frenzy over books like The Da Vinci Code (which is a really fun book and should not be viewed with such stigma by Christians) and scholars like Elaine Pagels (at Princeton University). Ehrman was even featured on NPR in an interview with Terry Gross, of "Fresh Air" fame. The best article on Ehrman to appear is from the Washington Post, entitled "The Book of Bart," focusing on his life as background to his books.

Ehrman's thesis is only shocking to evangelicals: the Bible went through many changes and revisions, is full of errors, and was compiled with political motives. His conclusion is that the Bible cannot be divine revelation and Christianity is a human invention rooted in power-plays that pushed out other valid faiths (lost Christianities) in the pursuit of a single "orthodoxy." Ehrman is not original in the least, and he knows it. He simply happens to write with more effectiveness than most. Of course, it doesn't hurt that he wrote a book on The Da Vinci Code. To say the least, Ehrman is a big bestseller. He writes pop-nonfiction about religion that undermines the church. This is hot stuff. Everyone wants to read it.

(It might be worth reflecting for a moment about why this is the case. While a future post is foreshadowed here, I believe American society finds in Ehrman another perceived answer to the riddle and complexity of life. Ehrman, like Brown and Pagels and others like them, offer a Gnostic hope: a secret knowledge that promises to solve a mystery -- even THE mystery -- of life, in opposition to powerful organizations that have made long-standing claims to truthfulness. Institutional Christianity is a popular target, as is the U.S. government. Ehrman simply feeds the people what they want: the answer to life's problems. The church tells them that they have the answer. Ehrman and others say the church is part of the problem. People love this, because it frees them from the claims of revelation upon their lives. From my vantage point, the rejection of Religion is what Ehrman and the vast populace represent, and thus this is a potentially positive change. Here we need Barth and Bonhoeffer to step in as our guides. We need someone committed to the tradition to show us what a Christ-centered, cruciform religionless Christianity looks like.)

I can't help feeling that Ehrman is a parable of the decay of evangelicalism -- at least in its more fundamentalist forms. For those who grow up believing that Christianity is spotless and free from error (infallible, as Catholics say), even a casual investigation into the origins of the Scriptures and faith is going to be shocking, possibly destructive. I first wrestled with this at Wheaton, particularly when I read Mark Noll's fantastic book, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. This past year has revived some of those inner tensions. A close historical-critical examination of the Bible quickly demolishes any naive ideas about inerrancy. Looking historically at the origins of Scripture and the Christian faith can indeed be a crisis for many people. Evangelicals in the 20th century felt this crisis, and they reacted by retreating into the fortress. Consequently, American evangelicalism now more than ever embodies the anti-intellectualism that Noll diagnosed. Instead of struggling through these complexities of the faith and keeping their eyes open to the sins of the church, evangelicals prefer to shut out the evil "world" -- while reading Rick Warren and Bruce Wilkinson.

The Roman Catholic church holds on to the fallible claim to infallibility, while conservative evangelicals hold on to their infallible-inerrant Bible (which functions like the Catholic pope ex cathedra). Neither ecclesiolatry nor bibliolatry will get us out of this mess. We need a new path. A path that says "Jesus is Lord" without reading the narratives of Jesus as literal history. A path that worships the triune God without assuming the Bible is perfectly consistent and free from contradictions. In other words, a faith that has its eyes open to its past, to the present world, and to the future.

Ehrman is someone that Christians must not reject as a "liberal" agnostic who has left the faith by being "too smart." This kind of counter-reaction, which is probably going on all over the nation, only entrenches evangelicalism in anti-intellectualism. Furthermore, it prevents evangelicals from seeing the only viable option: to embrace Ehrman as one of their own, even if he rejects them. The fact is that Ehrman is a kind of American Everyman or Everywoman. His rejection of Christianity is not uncommon; Pagels, Brown, and others have influenced others to do the same. The only Christian response is to accept them, to affirm them, and most importantly, to engage them in love and dialogue.


I can't help but feel that Ehrman might have been better served by a more careful doctrine of Scripture...
No doubt about it. But that's the case for a majority of evangelicals, in my opinion. Infallible pope = inerrant Bible. Big problem.
Anonymous said…
David, Janelle here. I return to ask yet again about the inerrancy issue. A sort of "religionless Christianity" sounds fabulous to me, only I don't undestand exactly what that would mean or how one would go about subscribing to such. If the Bible is full of inconsistencies etc. what sort of revelation is it...if it is revelation at all? On what authority does one believe? If you have a minute, jump over to Mike Harrel's blog and read his April 3rd post on this question of authority will you? Helpful thoughts or direction?
Iterations said…
Great post. I have read a couple of Ehrman's books but had no idea he was such a big deal from your side of the pond.
Thanks, Richard, for the comment. I like your website (and I can appreciate your obsession with Reese -- I assume you've seen Walk the Line).

Janelle, good question. This could take a LOT more time and space than you would be willing to read and I willing to write. But I'll try to sketch out a few concepts and ideas that pertain to "religionless Christianity." First, this phrase was coined by Bonhoeffer but comes in large part from Karl Barth. Those who came after Bonhoeffer who used this phrase took it to mean a kind of non-institutional Christianity which was freed from all ties to church authority and tradition, consonant with the "death of God" fad-theology that swept Europe and America in the 60s.

This is not at all what Barth and Bonhoeffer had in mind. Both were deeply committed to the traditions of the Reformation, and to the church in a catholic sense. So what does "religionless Christianity" mean? Definitely not non-revelational Christianity. In fact, no theologian has stressed the importance of revelation more than Barth, and Bonhoeffer agrees with Barth in large part, though he also wants more practical considerations of what it means to live in such a church which is defined by God's self-revelation in Christ, not by Religion. Religion (with a capital "R") is defined by Barth as the human pursuit of God through ritual and practice. The best example of religion is the Tower of Babel: humans reaching after God, rather than allowing God to reach humanity (in Christ, e.g.).

So what does this for our view of the Bible? Just this: the Bible is NOT revelation. Only Jesus Christ is God's revelation to us. Barth wrote a nice little essay called "Revelation" in his book, God in Action, in which he gives a parable about the meaning of revelation. He uses a military story to convey his point. The actual attack (so to speak) is God's coming to us in the revelation of Jesus Christ. The Incarnation is God's attack upon the prophets and apostles who were first-hand witnesses. He writes, "The group whom the enemy has already attacked are the prophets and apostles; and their report to the other group which is standing behind the front line prepared to reenforce them is the Holy Scripture." In other words, Jesus Christ is revelation; the Bible is a testimony or witness to this singular event. The church is the community centered around this event: "These reenforcements whom the report from the front line has called up is the Church which hears the Holy Scripture. The moment of the call, and thus of decision, resolution, command, and obedience is the moment in which we stand: the moment of confession."

This means that Scripture does not need to be inerrant in order to be authoritative. Why? Because it is the human witness to the divine event of revelation. We can recognize the event despite and through the fallibility of the message. What the message preserves in its errant forms is the event of salvation through Christ, the coming of God to the world pro nobis.

How does this affect our view of church and Christianity? It means that a "religionless Christianity" focuses not on the moral efforts of humanity to live "religious" lives. Rather, we live as those who have witnessed an event, whose lives are not our own but are given to us. We are thus concerned not with Scripture as it tells us how to live, but with Scripture in that it relates us to the person in whom we find our true being and reality: Jesus Christ. We need not fear the errors and contradictions in Scripture, because it is a human text. What we must truly fear is the holy love of the Lord who opens this biblical witness through the Holy Spirit that we may find ourselves created anew.

With that said, I feel compelled to state that I disagree with most of what Mike has written on authority. I am an ardent opponent of the language of "objective truth," as well as the view of God as simply an infinite projection of what we are in finite form. All of this lacks theological precision and needs to be reworked or jettisoned in favor of a critically realistic theology rooted in God's self-revelation.

I welcome questions and comments.
Shane said…

I think that there is something really problematic about 'religionless christianity'. I'm afraid to start this argument though, because I would need to rework the concept of religion a bit.

Here is a sketch: human beings are drawn towards transcendence--whether it be expressed in religion, art, music, or the feeling of absolute dependence, etc. In response to the draw of transcendence, we come up with ways of living in its light. In some sense, I think mosthuman beings are religious, because there is something beyond ourselves that orients our lives.

None of this counts as revelation, by the way.

But, it is a part of being human, and I'm inclined to think that revelation purifies, orders, redirects an impulse to worship already present within us. (Think of Paul's speech on Mars Hill). Religion, then, is not something hostile to faith, I think. Indeed, I think religion might just be the name for the shared system of symbols, rites, dogmas and so forth that is a foundational part of genuine human communities. Religion is not coextensive with faith, but it might provide a fertile ground within which the seed of faith can grow.
Shane, as much as I respect your intellect, I cannot help but criticize any presentation of what is self-evidently "natural religion"--by which I mean an intrinsic religious impulse that directs us toward god (God?), that transcendent Supreme Being who is beyond us.

Any rigorous critical concept of revelation in Jesus Christ is going to clash with such a view. The two cannot be held together in a kind of Christian paradox. Humanity does not have some seed of the divine life within that revelation simply develops. This turns revelation into an anthropocentric doctrine used for the maturation of the individual. What revelation must assert (to remain revelation) is that God comes to us, God comes to the world, God speaks and transforms humanity (and eventually all of creation). To speak otherwise is to reduce revelation into some tool for our own self-betterment.

Religion as "the shared system of symbols, rites, dogmas and so forth that is a foundational part of genuine human communities" is nothing other than our cultural forms of self-expression. In other words, what you come so close to saying outright is that our works of art are religion, as if our cultural output is necessary for faith to develop.

But you might say that such cultural rites are not necessary, but in that case, our cultural production is external to revelation and the human response in faith. If religion does not necessarily contribute to faith, then God acts unilaterally -- as indeed God does and must. Cultural symbols, rites, etc are not worthless, because God's act of revelation appropriates these human institutions for the purpose of expressing God's truth within the world.

Let's go back to the Tower of Babel story. In this mythical story, why could God not have appreciated this "fertile ground" of human efforts to understand, express, and "reach" God by meeting them half-way? Why not allow the seed of revelation to grow organically within this culturally rich soil? More importantly, why incarnate Godself within humanity in the person of Jesus Christ? Why such a unilateral movement from God to humanity, when an internal progression was already in place in the people of Israel?

These are the kinds of questions that "natural religion" has no satisfactory answer to, in my opinion. "Religionless Christianity" is not a dismissal of our cultural forms and rites and dogmas, but rather the critical analysis of all human culture under the rubric of God's self-revelation in Jesus Christ. Anything else subverts revelation by making it a general human principle latent within creation, rather than a gift from God to humanity.
Anonymous said…
Hi! I was wondering, are you Catholic? I'm asking because I see that you list the RCIA blog as another of your blogs. ~ Julie
Arthur said…
The problem I have with people like Bart is that, for the most part, he is just another alarmist who pretends scholarship, yet denies it ultimately in what he argues.

For example, in his latest book, "Jesus, Interrupted," he brings up old and refuted Bible contradiction claims that were answered hundreds (let me repeat that) hundreds (let me repeat it again) hundreds of years before the man was born. Now I ask you, is that scholarship or something else? Whatever you want to call it, don't insult my intelligence by trying to call it "scholarship." So, as I read his latest nonsense, I am thoroughly unimpressed.

You're right, Arthur, that very little if anything that Ehrman writes is "new." It's all old hat for people familiar with biblical criticism.

However, "refuted" and "answered"? No. I don't think the apologetic answers that you think satisfy are really answers at all. The problem is not with the contradictions and errors pointed out by Ehrman and others, but with the doctrine of Scripture that thinks such contradictions and errors are a problem at all. And that, finally, is the problem with Ehrman. Not that he has poor scholarship, but that he gave up on Christianity on the basis of a bad doctrine of Scripture.
Arthur said…
David. I would respectfully disagree. I've been studying Scripture and atheistic arguments for a while (over 15 years) John W. Haley and others have indeed answered and refuted most, if not all, of the contradiction and "error" claims Bart trots out.

Now what bothers me is the fact that Bart pretends that no one has written about these answers. I would have less of a problem if he simply put the alleged contradiction, gave the answer to it, and THEN proceeded to explain why that answer, given perhaps hundreds of years ago, is not satisfactory to HIM. At at least then I would have greater respect for what he says.

But when he acts as if no one has answered or refuted his claims, that, to me, smacks of a level of dishonesty and low scholarship. As one one studies scholarship and in a scholarly manner, I know it is not scholarly to ignore the other side of an argument. That is standard academia. Now if you think the answers are not answers at all, then I would say you probably have not read them. They make far better sense than to simply argue that some of them are "irreconcilable contradictions," when honest scholarship says otherwise.

As for the him giving up Christianity over a "bad" doctrine of Scripture, I beg to differ. First of all, I do not believe the man was ever truly born again, despite his claims. Why? Because I've been born again for over 20 years, and I've been exposed to just about every argument against the Christian faith that he has (contradictions and errors and all) and I have NOT become agnostic or atheist, as the Spirit of God has given me discernment to detect error.

Nothing he learned at Princeton would have made me do as Bart has done because of the Spirit. Second, the doctrine of inerrancy is a natural correlative to what Scripture says about itself. But to think that if a scribe misspells a name, or some corrupt group tries to change manuscripts to fit a doctrine, that this somehow undermines inspiration or inerrancy under the circumstances, is childish to me.

The very minor differences in manuscripts are not enough to turn a truly born again person from faith. And as other scholars have pointed out, Bart exaggerates in his books and comes to conclusions that are not warranted from the evidence. Metzger doesn't argue what he does, and he learned under him.

Interestingly enough, Bart now sounds like all the uneducated atheists I've been reading and refuting for years, using the same old, tired, wornout AND refuted contradiction and error claims. It is no wonder that you have a world of atheists and agnostics quoting Bart all day, yet not realizing that what he argues has indeed been sufficiently answered before the man was born. So, I must beg to differ based on the evidence and years of study on these issues.