Posts Tagged “bart ehrman”

Nativity Scene / Ian Britton, via FreefotoI’ve mentioned the New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman a few times on this blog. The most recent edition of Newsweek contains a piece he wrote, about what we do and don’t know about the Jesus Christ and his birth (locally-cached article):

As Christians around the world now prepare to celebrate Jesus’ birth, it is worth considering that much of the “common knowledge” about the babe in Bethlehem cannot be found in any scriptural authority, but is either a modern myth or based on Gospel accounts from outside the sacred bounds of Christian Scripture. Some obvious examples: nowhere does the Bible indicate what year Jesus came into the world, or that he was born on Dec. 25; it does not place an ox and an ass in his manger; it does not say that it was 3 (as opposed to 7 or 12) wise men who visited him.

So not only do most Christians believe things about Jesus and his birth which are not in their Bible, what’s actually contained within that Bible has more than a few holes:

For centuries scholars have recognized that the birth narratives of the New Testament are historically problematic. For one thing, the two accounts—the first two chapters of Matthew and the first two chapters of Luke—are strikingly different from one another, in ways that appear irreconcilable. To start with, they both give genealogies of Jesus’ father, Joseph (it’s an interesting question why they do so, since in neither account is Jesus a blood relative of Joseph), but they are different genealogies: he is said to have a different father, and grandfather, and great-grandfather, and so on. It is not that one is a genealogy of Mary and the other of Joseph. Both Gospel authors are crystal clear: they are giving Joseph’s genealogy. …

Moreover, both accounts contain contradictions with the known facts of history. Just take Luke as an example. Only in this Gospel do Joseph and Mary make a trip from their home in Nazareth to Bethlehem in order to register for a census when “the whole world” had to be enrolled under Caesar Augustus. The whole world? Luke must mean “the whole Roman Empire.” But even that cannot be right, historically. We have good documentation about the reign of Caesar Augustus, and there never was a census of his entire empire. Let alone one in which people had to register in their ancestral home.

If one assumes — as most Christians do — that the gospels are “history,” in the sense of being a direct and accurate record of true historical events as they happened, this can, indeed, be troubling. But as Ehrman points out, this need not be the case:

The accounts of Jesus’ life in the New Testament have never been called “histories”; instead, they have always been known as ­“Gospels”—that is “proclamations of the good news.” These are books that meant to declare religious truths, not historical facts. For believers who think that truth must, necessarily, be based on history, that probably will not be good news at all. But for those with a broader vision, a more generous appreciation of ?literature, and a fuller sense of theological meaning, the story of the Christ-child and his appearance in the world can be founded not on what really did happen, but on what really does happen, in the lives of those who believe that ?stories such as these can convey a ?greater truth.

Cue the inevitable sanctimonious outrage … against Ehrman for having written it, and Newsweek for having printed it. Cue the accusations that Ehrman, or Newsweek, or both somehow “hate” the Baby Jesus and that they’re “dissing” him. Cue the outrage that they insolently chose the precious Christmas season to unleash their attack on Christianity and on Christians everywhere.

This is only natural, and they largely can’t help themselves. For Christian fundamentalists … unwilling to accept that the content of their Bible might be “true” only as metaphor or inspiration … Ehrman’s piece is blasphemy of the highest order. Because fundamentalists have been the most vocal wing of American Christianity over the last several decades, they’ve laid the foundation for what most Christians in the US think about the Bible — even if their own denominations don’t teach the fundamentalists’ kind of Biblical literalism — and that means most other, non-fundamentalist Christians will also be offended at what Ehrman wrote. But the bottom line is that what he says is nothing new, and is not at all strange to anyone who’s familiar with the material in question. Which ultimately, and ironically, is all the more reason why no one ought to be offended by it at all. There’s nothing new or novel here. No major revelations. Just old news … to those who know the early Christian texts and the religion’s history.

Photo credit: Ian Britton, via Freefoto.

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I’ve blogged before about Bart Ehrman, a New Testament scholar, whose original education had been in a fundamentalist Bible college, followed by post-graduate work under the famous Bruce Metzger at Princeton Theological Seminary. His religious and theological credentials, therefore, are considerable.

Nevertheless, he is today an agnostic. Merely by being an agnostic, Ehrman arouses the ire of fundamentalist Christians. Despite this he’s published a number of books elucidating how and why Biblical literalism is flawed, and continues to do so.

At any rate, CNN recently profiled him on its Web site. In a time when religiosity has permeated the media — to an often-disturbing degree — this profile is a refreshing sight:

Former fundamentalist ‘debunks’ Bible

Just so you know, Bart Ehrman says he’s not the anti-Christ.

He says he’s not trying to destroy your faith. He’s not trying to bash the Bible. And, though his mother no longer talks to him about religion, Ehrman says some of his best friends are Christian. …

In Ehrman’s latest book, “Jesus, Interrupted,” he concludes:

Doctrines such as the divinity of Jesus and heaven and hell are not based on anything Jesus or his earlier followers said.

At least 19 of the 27 books in the New Testament are forgeries.

Believing the Bible is infallible is not a condition for being a Christian.

“Christianity has never been about the Bible being the inerrant word of God,” Ehrman says. “Christianity is about the belief in Christ.”

As I blogged before, this is the crux of Ehrman’s message. If I may quibble with the title of CNN’s article, it is not true that Ehrman “debunks the Bible.” Rather, he debunks “Biblical literalism” or the idea that the Bible is Christianity and vice-versa.

I find Christian fundamentalists’ objections to his work amusing:

Some scholarly critics say Ehrman is saying nothing new.

Bishop William H. Willimon, an author and United Methodist Church bishop based in Alabama, says he doesn’t like the “breathless tone” of Ehrman’s work.

“He keeps presenting this stuff as if this is wonderful new knowledge that has been kept from you backward lay people and this is the stuff your preachers don’t have the guts to tell, and I have,” Willimon says. “There’s a touch of arrogance in it.”

It is true that much of what Ehrman has to say is not really all that new. The problems inherent in Bible texts and in their transmission and translation have been known for at least a couple of centuries — at least, to scholars and textual critics, if not to rank-&-file Christians.

But that hardly invalidates anything he says, as his critics seem to think. Ehrman has a knack for explaining things well, even to this amateur textual critic. Moreover, if the worst they can say of him is that he’s “arrogant” and that they dislike his “tone,” those also do not make him wrong. (And if I might point it out … fundamentalists themselves are extremely arrogant and have a condescending tone … they claim to know “the Truth” and are more than willing to pound it into people, as if they’re entitled to do so. If that’s not “arrogance,” I don’t know what is!)

CNN is to be congratulated for this profile, which is sure to offend Christians of the Biblical-literalist sort, which is just fine by me … they deserve to be offended!

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There’s a type of Christianity known as “Protestant fundamentalism” which by its nature focuses heavily on the Bible as such. It attempts to discern as much from the Bible as there is to be had, and also attempts to make its practices and beliefs fit with it as much as possible.

One can, of course, argue they don’t do a good job of this … e.g. these people believe in the Trinity, even if that word is found nowhere in the pages of the Bible, and if there are verses refuting it in addition to those that support it. And many of my blog postings describe ways in which they fall short of the content of the teachings recorded in the Bible, so I tend to agree, they have not actually accomplished the goal they set out to achieve.

Occasionally I’ve referred to them as “Bible-worshippers,” because in truth, it’s not God (or Jesus or any other specific form of God) they worship. Their allegiance to a strict and literal interpretation of the Bible is so fervent and so strong, that it can only be seen as a form of “worship” in and of itself.

As it turns out, I’m not the only one who sees it this way. A “Guest Voices” piece in the On Faith blog at the Washington Post, by scholar Bart Ehrman, says almost the same thing, but in a more lucid way:

“Are you out to destroy the Christian religion?” I’ve been asked this question several times over the past month, as some evangelicals have expressed shock and outrage over my book, “Jesus Interrupted,” where I deal with the historical problems of the New Testament. These problems are rife, to be sure. … But doesn’t that make Christianity bogus? “Are you out to destroy the Christian religion?”

The truth is that I find this question more than a little odd. For one thing, I learned all of these problems in a leading Protestant theological seminary, while taking Bible classes in preparation for Christian ministry. …

The idea that to be a Christian you have to “believe in the Bible” (meaning, believe that it is in some sense infallible) is a modern invention. Church historians have traced the view, rather precisely, to the Niagara Conference on the Bible, in the 1870s, held over a number of years to foster belief in the Bible in opposition to liberal theologians who were accepting the results of historical scholarship. In 1878 the conference summarized the true faith in a series of fourteen statements. The very first one — to be believed above all else — was not belief in God, or in the death and resurrection of Jesus. It was belief in the Bible.

Ehrman goes on to explain that this fierce fundamentalist “Bible-worship” was, prior to the late 19th century, fully alien to Christianity:

Throughout most of history most Christian thinkers would have been seen this view as theological nonsense. Or blasphemy. The Bible was never to be an object of faith. God through Christ was. Being a Christian meant believing in Christ, not believing in the Bible.

Here are the historical realities. Christianity existed before the Bible came into being: no one decided that our twenty-seven books of the New Testament should be “the” Christian Scripture until three hundred years after the death of the apostles. Since that time Christianity has existed in places where there were no Bibles to be found, where no one could read the Bible, where no one correctly understood the Bible. Yet it has existed. Christianity does not stand or fall with the Bible.

This is a truth that the “Bible-worshipping fundamentalists” simply cannot, or will not, deal with. Nevertheless it makes a great deal of sense. Did the apostles Jesus left behind have a New Testament when they started out? No. Did Paul have a New Testament when he was converted on the road to Damascus? Also, no. They did have “a Bible,” if you take that to be the then-vernacular translations of Hebrew scripture available to them, the Targum in Aramaic and/or the Septuagint in Greek. But not one single New Testament work had been written in the first couple decades or so of Christianity. The earliest of them … the genuine Pauline epistles … were not written until well after Paul had converted, meaning there was no New Testament at all for the first several years of his ministry.

Since all of these early Christians had no New Testament, it cannot be said that there was any “Christian Bible” for them to use. They had only their own oral traditions and/or various documents of their own (some of which became the New Testament, while most others did not). The Christian Bible as we know it did not exist for the first several centuries of Christianity.

The truth — as Ehrman states so clearly — is that you do not need to have a Bible, or even have seen one, in order to be a Christian. That so many people in the occidental world believe the Bible is necessary for all Christians, is a result of how vocal the Protestant fundamentalists have been over the last century or so. They have successfully made many of us believe — as they do — that the Bible is God and vice versa; however this is simply not the case.

All you need to do, in order to be a Christian, is to follow the teachings of Jesus Christ. If it sounds as though this cannot be done without a Bible in hand, it’s actually not the case, because it has happened, and will again.

It’s time for the “Bible-worshippers” to stop bowing before the altar of their book, to give up their scriptural idolatry, and begin actually to practice Christianity instead.

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