Analysis of Bart Ehrman’s Jesus, Interrupted—Part 1

This is part one of a two-part analysis. You need not have read Ehrman’s book to understand his arguments and the rebuttals here discussed. This is a good beginner’s exercise in developing intellectual discernment regarding accusations against the Christian faith.

In Jesus, Interrupted, Bart Ehrman endeavors to undermine any notions the reader of this popular-level book may hold about the Bible being historically and theologically reliable. He conducts a systematic assault on the textual foundation of the Christian faith by describing what he believes to be irresolvable discrepancies, especially among the gospel accounts of Jesus Christ. Additionally, he calls into question the traditionally-accepted identities of New Testament authorship and the historicity of Jesus as he is portrayed by Scripture.  Ehrman goes on to denounce the canonization process, citing dynamics of early church history as support for his argument, then concludes with a mini-manifesto on his post-modernist ideas concerning morality and theology.

“Academic bullying” is a phrase that has been appropriately used to depict Bart Ehrman’s approach for persuading his audience.[1] This begins on the very first page of his opening chapter entitled “A Historical Assault on Faith.” Using hyperbolic generalizations, Ehrman touts his own views as being those that are predominant among the most current Biblical archaeology, Greek and Hebrew scholarship, and textual analysis. He says that the results of these studies (implying an overwhelming consensus) “are regularly and routinely taught, both to graduate students in universities and to prospective pastors attending seminaries in preparation for the ministry. Yet such views of the bible are virtually unknown among the population at large…because many pastors who learned this material…[haven’t] shared it with their parishioners once they take up positions in the church.” He means, of course, to imply that there is some sort of conspiracy going on behind pulpits across the nation—to keep congregations dumb to the “real truth” about the Bible.

Next, Ehrman attempts to further manipulate the reader’s receptivity to his forthcoming argument before the first shred of “evidence” is even mentioned. He does this by devising a sly and effective false dichotomy. The reader can choose to trust him (and the so-called grand majority of current scholarship) concerning everything he is about to “reveal,” or the reader may choose the only proffered alternative: to utterly ignore the conclusions of the “experts,” and continue on with his or her head in the evangelical sand.

What Ehrman has done here is not only fallacious, it is outright dishonest. On the first point regarding the overwhelming majority’s opinion, Ehrman exaggerates to a significant degree. Concerning this, Ben Witherington says:

It is always a danger to over generalize when we are dealing with [something] as important a matter as the ‘truth about the Bible’…it is simply untrue to say that most scholars or the majority of Bible scholars or the majority of serious critical scholars would agree with Bart Ehrman in his conclusions about this or that NT matter. NT scholarship is a many splintered thing, and Ehrman’s position certainly does not represent a majority view, or the critical consensus about such matters.[2]

Michael Kruger of Reformed Theological Seminary says that Ehrman “fails to mention that of all the ATS-accredited seminaries in the United States, the top ten largest seminaries are all evangelical…Apparently the only schools that count in Ehrman’s analysis…are the ones that already agree with him. It is not so difficult to prove your views are mainstream when you get to decide what is mainstream.”[3]

Secondly, Ehrman’s accusation that pastors educated in seminaries purposefully avoid enlightening their congregants of the “problems” existing in Scripture out of some sort of fear is another over-generalization. He doesn’t even seem to allow for the very real possibility (and truth of the matter) that many of these pastors simply disagree with his interpretations of the discrepancies and his sharply liberal opinions about authorship and canonization.

Thus, with the reader primed, Ehrman wastes no time in launching into his analysis of Biblical text. He goes about this with the same tone of scholarly superiority toward anyone who refuses to acknowledge these “problems” which he says are “staring you in the face.”[4] Chapters 2 and 3 comprise the greater part of his argument, as he presents multiple examples of what he describes as inconsistencies and contradictions.

On account of space, all of the instances of discrepancy Ehrman discusses cannot each be mentioned here, but it is necessary to select a few for the purpose of illustrating the problems with his critical technique and interpretation of historical information.

First, we’ll take a look at his treatment of the two separate birth accounts of Jesus, one being in Matthew, the other in Luke. Ehrman points out that it is from these two passages that all of the known details of Christ’s birth come, and often the details are combined to create one Christmas story.[5] This, he says in no uncertain terms, is entirely unacceptable, as they are “completely different stories.”[6] What are the differences that he sees as so incompatible? He points out that the author of Matthew carries on a running theme of prophecy fulfillment in the birth narrative. Luke, on the other hand, does not talk about this at all. Luke’s account is much longer than Matthew’s and includes the story of Elizabeth and Zechariah, the parents of Jesus’ cousin, John the Baptist. Luke doesn’t mention Joseph’s dreams, but does speak of angelic visitation with Mary and Elizabeth. Matthew speaks of wise men, but Luke has shepherds instead. Matthew does not discuss the census that was the reason for Mary and Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem, but it is a significant part of Luke’s story.

According to Luke, because Joseph was of the lineage of David he had to return to the city of David, Bethlehem, to be registered in a census. Ehrman says, “But David lived a thousand years before Joseph. Are we to imagine that everyone in the Roman Empire was required to return to the homes of their ancestors from a thousand years earlier?” This is a strange question, simply because there is absolutely no reason to believe that Joseph didn’t have very recent ancestry from Bethlehem, or that he himself wasn’t born there. Ehrman dismisses the entire census story as historically improbable and a fabrication on the part of Luke, saying: “He wanted Jesus to be born in Bethlehem.”[7] Witherington disagrees, saying that “there are…very clear examples from the province of Egypt of such census taking done for the purpose of taxation. And in fact, the evidence suggests a link with one’s ancestral home.”[8]

The bottom line for Ehrman is that “Virtually everything said in Matthew is missing from Luke, and all the stories of Luke are missing from Matthew.” He does concede to the possibility that each of the authors is telling only part of the story, but the other problem, he says, is that “there are not only differences but also discrepancies that appear difficult if not impossible to reconcile.”[9] For instance, he says that if the Gospel accounts are correct that Jesus was born during the reign of King Herod, then it cannot be true that, as Luke says, Quirinius was the governor of Syria at the time, because Quirinius didn’t attain that office until after Herod died. Witherington gives one plausible solution to this. He says of the Greek text: “The issue here is the function of the word prote. What it seems to indicate is that the census in question took place prior to Quirinius’ governorship of Syria. There was indeed a famous and indeed notorious census which led to the rebellion of Judas the Galilean in A.D. 6, and so Luke would be distinguishing that census from the earlier one when Mary and Joseph were enrolled.”[10] It is clear then, that even when there is a feasible way to resolve perceived conflict between two separate Gospel accounts, Ehrman notably refuses to even discuss it.[11]

Ehrman repeatedly expresses his disapproval of piecing together stories from two separate Gospel accounts (as with the two birth narratives), saying that by doing so we create a third version that is unlike either of the first two. Another example of this is in his discussion of the day after Jesus’ baptism. The synoptic Gospels tell of Jesus going into the wilderness where he is tempted by Satan. The Gospel of John, however, does not mention this. Instead, John gives an account of John the Baptist seeing Jesus and speaking to him the day after the baptism. Ehrman asks which, if either, is correct. Well, it is completely reasonable to suppose that both are telling the truth. There are, in fact, twenty-four hours in a day. John the Baptist could have met with Jesus the next morning prior to Jesus’ wilderness excursion, or even afterwards. Ehrman doesn’t even seem to consider this option, perhaps because it violates his policy of not creating a “third story.” Kruger says this avoidance of combining accounts to create a more complete picture is “perplexing coming from a scholar like Ehrman. After all, ancient historiography, by definition, has inherent limitation in what it can record; a writer cannot say everything about a particular event. So when multiple historical sources for the same event are considered, of course they constitute a ‘third’ story when they are combined.”[12]

Stay tuned for Part 2 of this analysis of Jesus, Interrupted.


[1] Michael J. Kruger, “Bart D. Ehrman, Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the   Bible (and Why We Don’t Know About Them),Westminster Theological Journal 71, no. 2 (Fall 2009):503.

[2] Ben Witherington, “Bart, Interrupted—A Detailed Analysis of Jesus, Interrupted,” http://benwitherington.blogspot.com/2009/04/bart-interrupted-detailed-analysis-of.html

[3] Kruger, 504.

[4] Bart Ehrman, Jesus, Interrupted (New York: Harper Collins, 2009), 6.

[5] Ehrman, 30.

[6] Ehrman, 30.

[7] Ehrman, 33.

[8] Witherington, “Bart, Interrupted.”

[9] Ehrman, 33.

[10] Witherington, “Bart, Interrupted.” The ESV also footnotes Luke 2:2 as having the possible translation “before” Quirinius was governor.

[11] Kruger, 504.

[12] Kruger, 504.

One thought on “Analysis of Bart Ehrman’s Jesus, Interrupted—Part 1

  1. There is an alternative solution to the John the Baptist ‘contradiction.’

    John comes to the Jordan baptising preaching the forgiveness and repentance as Matthew 3 says. Jesus gets baptised and then goes into the wilderness for 40 days as says Matthew 4 to be tempted of the devil. After 40 days he comes back to where John is baptising as per John 1 and John says, Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world pointing out Jesus is the Messiah. Two of John’s disciples hear and start following Jesus and Jesus shows them where he is staying and they spend a whole day with him. Then you have wedding of Cana and the miracle as says John chapter 2. Then you have Jesus declaring himself to be the Messiah in Luke chapter 4.

    I think this explains the apparent contradiction.

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