[Bart] Ehrman is something of a celebrity skeptic. The media attraction is easy to understand. Ehrman has a famous deconversion story from being a fundamentalist Christian to becoming a “happy agnostic.” He’s a New York Times bestselling author, having written several books about the Bible, Jesus, and God with a view to debunking widely held religious beliefs based on a mixture of bad history, deception, and myth. He’s a publicist dream since in talk shows and in live debates he knows how to stir a crowd through hefty criticism, dry wit, on the spot recall of historical facts, and rhetorical hyberbole. He also has a global audience…
For conservative Christians, Ehrman is a bit of a bogeyman… Conservatives buy his books if only for the purpose of keeping their disgust with him fresh and find out what America’s favorite skeptic is up to now… For secularists,… Erhman is a godsend. He provides succor and solace that one need not take Jesus too seriously, confirming that religion is the opiate of the masses and that the whole God thing might be just a big mistake.
Why is Bart Ehrman, a professor of religion teaching at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, on a lot of people’s radar?
The Bart Ehrman Phenomenon
Bart Ehrman and I have very similar stories. He is just a few years older than me, and we both grew up in mainline Protestant Episcopal churches before having a “born again experience” (as he might put it) in high school through different parachurch youth ministries. We both have had advanced theological training (though he is clearly a very accomplished textual scholar, something that I never had the opportunity to do) and we find ourselves asking tough questions relating to faith and doubt. We both love history. Though I do not know him personally, my guess is that I would find him a very likable guy and we could become friends simply based on those mutual interests and experiences alone.
However, where he and I differ is that Ehrman thrust himself right away into the world of a strict fundamentalism and stayed with it for years. I went to college at a secular university, got involved in an InterVarsity Christian Fellowship campus ministry, and wrestled with the relentless challenges to the Christian faith. Ehrman, on the other hand, spent most of his young adult years in a conservative Christian “bubble” between Moody Bible Institute and, later, at the then more culturally-engaging Wheaton College. His approach to the Holy Scriptures was that if he were able to find simply one, small minor “error” in the Bible that it effectively would undermine his understanding of Biblical inerrancy and the entire Christian structured system of belief would eventually fall crashing down in one tremendous and terrifying heap. By the time he emerged out of the “bubble” and into graduate school, he was no longer able to prop up his intellectual edifice with sloppy apologetics. Though his eventual loss of confidence in Biblical inerrancy was not strictly the thing to destroy his faith, it became for him a type of slippery slope that finally led him to question the goodness of God in the face of evil. Getting hamstrung on the issue of how God relates to suffering was what undid Ehrman’s Christianity.
Nearly every Christian goes through tough times of questioning, but those who retain their faith eventually find their faith strengthened when looking back on their crisis. But for Ehrman, he simply got stuck in “crisis” mode and never got out of it. Presumably his catharsis now is to use his exceptional talents to broadcast his doubts to an eager audience that is looking for some “reasonable” excuses for holding God at arm’s length.
As a result, Ehrman’s continual exhortation about the many “errors and contradictions” within the Bible tends to infuriate his former evangelical Christian friends, hitting believers in the Bible at the most tangential and obscure points. But when he addresses essential points of Christian doctrine, as he does with the divinity of Christ in his most recent book, How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee, he offers a type of argumentation that takes historical observations regarding Christian origins and filters them through a supposedly impartial, yet nevertheless anti-supernatural worldview, presenting a more serious challenge. In contrast, Michael Bird and his team of scholars were able to get an advanced copy of the Ehrman manuscript to produce a book-length response where they expose the weaknesses in Ehrman’s well-presented, yet misleading approach, entitled How God Became Jesus: The Real Origins of Belief in Jesus’ Divine Nature—A Response to Bart Ehrman.
The Bart Ehrman Phenomenon as Tragedy and Opportunity
A Veracity follower asks this question: “If Jesus was just a historical figure , a mere man , why does Ehrman care so much to devote entire books to him?”
This is a great question, having many dimensions to its answer (Ehrman’s answer to this question vs. Michael Bird’s response). In my view, one of the reasons Ehrman is still drawn to the Christian Messiah is because of the immense mystery surrounding Jesus of Nazareth , but Ehrman’s spiritual perspective no longer provides the type of intellectual framework to support a Christian faith. Sadly, many Christians in response have settled for a type of hunkered down, culture warrior mentality that is always on the defensive against attacks on traditional Christian belief.
Strange as it may sound,… and please hear me out on this…, Bart Ehrman is actually doing the church a service.
Why do I say this? Many evangelical believers are simply unaware as to what nearly 99% of American university religion departments teach on a regular basis, outside of conservative evangelical Christian colleges and a few other exceptions, like some conservative Catholic institutions. Not all of what you find is bad. Sadly, many of our evangelical churches today simply fail to teach their people about the basics of theology, textual criticism, and church history. Such people listening base their faith on emotions for years instead of solid, informed Bible doctrine and history. So the first typical reaction when hearing Ehrman is like, “How come I have never heard this before?”
Some have their faith shaken to the core. Others dismiss Ehrman as a looney-tune. But the full story it is not entirely that flat or simplistic. Ehrman in general is not saying anything new. Ehrman gives a popular voice to viewpoints that have been circulating in academia for well over the past one hundred years. Yet his gift is in articulating these views in a language that normal people who have not had years of graduate school education can understand… and he makes skepticism about the Bible seem cool, hip, and intellectually more rational than what you typically find growing up in Sunday school.
But just because an intelligent and articulate guy like Bart Ehrman says it, does not make what he says correct and true.
Sometimes it takes someone like a Bart Ehrman and the public fascination with him to spark the church into action and do what needs to be done to build up the Body of Christ, giving tools and resources that enable believers to have reasoned conversations with people who would otherwise uncritically imbibe the ideas imparted by folks like Bart Ehrman. There are good, well-reasoned responses to the challenges that Bart Ehrman raises.
However, for some, it is tempting to throw out everything Ehrman says. But this would be wrong-headed. Frankly, on a number of issues, Ehrman is saying things that need to be said. For example, nowhere in the Gospels can you find a direct, plain statement from Jesus where he says, “Hey, look at me! I am God in Living Flesh, the Second Person of the Trinity!” Nope, that is not in my Bible, and Ehrman points this out. However, what is critically needed is a reasoned way to sift through Ehrman’s arguments, agreeing when appropriate, but yet firmly and gently exposing the flaws in his presentation. In response, we can succinctly say that though the theology of the divinity of Jesus is not made explicit in the New Testament, it is nevertheless a powerfully implicit argument presented in sacred Scripture.
Interestingly enough and to my surprise, Ehrman in this latest book for the most part agrees with the implicit argument for Trinitarian belief as taught in the pages of the New Testament. Thankfully, Ehrman does not repeat the terrible canard that the Emperor Constantine in the 4th. century A.D. somehow twisted the arms of Christian bishops at the Council of Nicea to “make” Jesus into God. Regrettably, what Ehrman does not do is to affirm the bodily resurrection of Jesus as the primary basis for the New Testament claim for the divinity of Jesus. God’s supernatural intervention in raising Jesus from the dead remains Ehrman’s central stumbling block. Granted, Ehrman contends that he is merely making an historical judgment on Jesus’ identity and not a theological judgment, but I am not very convinced that Ehrman is able to leave his theological and philosophical assumptions at the door. So while Ehrman’s latest book is not as badly controversial as it could have been, it still leaves historical evangelical belief in Jesus’ divinity rather short and mishandled, which is why the Michael Bird, et al, response book is so needed.
Craig A. Evans, professor of New Testament at Acadia Divinity School, was on the editorial team put together by Michael Bird for the response to Ehrman’s latest book. If you know of someone who is a Bart Ehrman “fan”, you should encourage them to get a copy of the response book, if only for the simple purpose of reading Craig Evans’ outstanding chapter. In the following interview, Evans models for us the best approach to the most recent ideas put forward by Bart Ehrman:
If you have been living without a television or radio in the first part of the 21st century, with only a 96K modem to read this blog, and you have not seen Bart Ehrman in action, you will be challenged by this 5-minute interview for his hugely popular book Misquoting Jesus by the news/comedian Stephen Colbert, who plays a type of “heaven’s” advocate.
For more on Bart Ehrman’s side of the argument about Jesus’ identity, here is a 40-minute interview with Terry Gross, on the National Public Radio program, Fresh Aire.
Andreas Köstenberger, co-author of Truth Matters, covered here before on Veracity, has a fairly short review of Ehrman’s book at the Gospel Coalition.
I highly recommend this detailed yet fair-minded review of both books, written by Rob Bowman at Credo House. The folks at Credo House come from an impressive new generation of Dallas Theological Seminary grads that do not simply tow the party line, whatever that may be these days, but they do engage fellow evangelicals critically and fairly. In sum, Bowman finds that the Michael Bird response book does not fully address all of the arguments that Ehrman makes, some chapters being better than others (Evans’ chapter being by far the best), but it at least makes a strong case against many of Ehrman’s central assertions.
Do you want to learn more about the response book to Ehrman’s latest salvo? You might want to view the following promo by Michael Bird, the Australian editor of the response book:[vimeo 90689950 w=500&h=281]