Analysis of Bart Ehrman’s Jesus, Interrupted–Part 2

Another example from Ehrman’s inventory of pet “contradictions” is the difference in the placement of the temple cleansing account within the Gospel of John compared with its placement in the Synoptic Gospels. In John, the story of Jesus clearing the temple of money changers is told early on, but in the Synoptics this story is not told until very near the Passion narrative (or, it could be considered part of that narrative). Ehrman says this is an irreconcilable problem. On the contrary, the problem rests with his complete disregard for the conventions of genre literature.[1] Witherington says:

The ancient biographical or historiographical work operated with the freedom to arrange their material in several different ways, including topically, geographically, chronologically…The Synoptic writers are likely presenting a more chronologically apt picture of when this event actually happened. But strict chronology was not the major purpose of the Fourth Evangelist…Such was the freedom, within limits, of ancient biographies and histories.

So, it is very reasonable to infer that John’s arrangement of events was much more topical or theological, whereas the Synoptics seem to stick more closely to a chronological sequence of events.

Chapter 3 is Ehrman’s attempt to convince the reader that although many of the differences between accounts aren’t of theological import, many of them are significant. He spends seven pages discussing what he calls a “clear and gripping” issue: the variance in the account of Jesus’ death as recorded in Mark and Luke. He says, “You might think that all the Gospels have exactly the same message about the crucifixion, and that their differences might simply reflect minor changes of something else. Bt in fact the differences are much larger and more fundamental than that.”

The majority of the differences Ehrman points out are easily resolved by remembering that the author of Mark and the author of Luke give accounts based on individual points of view of the crucifixion. Mark mentions things that Luke does not, and vice versa. However, the theological focus of each account seems to be different. In Mark, much emphasis is placed on Jesus’ physical and emotional suffering. It is in Mark that Jesus’ cry “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”[2] The theme the author stresses is sacrifice, atonement by blood.[3] In Luke, the author does not highlight the suffering of Jesus, but rather how Jesus’ concern throughout his ordeal was for those around him.[4] It is in Luke’s account that Jesus prays, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”[5] Also, the account of Jesus forgiving one of the convicts being crucified alongside him only appears in Luke, as does Jesus’ final prayer, “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit.”[6] Clearly, Luke emphasizes Jesus’ selflessness and his submission to the Father.

So what is the problem, according to Ehrman? He says, “It is hard to stress strongly enough the differences between these two portrayals of Jesus’ death…What might Luke’s purpose have been in modifying Mark’s account, so that Jesus no longer dies in agony and despair?”[7] This is a striking example of Ehrman’s refusal to harmonize when harmonization is completely rational. Doesn’t it go without saying that crucifixion was a horrible, agonizing way to die? Even if an author chooses not to elaborate on that angle of the event, that doesn’t mean there was no suffering involved. It is not unreasonable to say that the author of Luke knew his readers were aware of the nature of this form of execution, and he simply chose not to elaborate on it in the manner Mark did. The theme seems to be more along the lines of the hope the Christian has for an afterlife with the Father in paradise, while Mark’s theme is on the act of redemption that made that possible.

It is baffling why Ehrman sees this as such a grave difficulty. What we have are two gospels that each give accounts of the Passion of Jesus Christ. Each highlights different theological aspects of the event. This can be considered quite a wonderful characteristic of Scripture. The reader of the different Gospel accounts perceives a complex portrait of the course of events, the words of Christ, and the theological truths conveyed. There is not, by definition, contradiction, but a wonderful synergy.

Chapter 4 is dedicated to an attack on New Testament authorship. Ehrman proceeds in much the same way one would expect, having read the preceding chapters. He does his best to discredit the reliability of the Gospels by using old arguments, saying that the Gospels were written anonymously, and the titles were added very late in relation to their actual date of authorship, which he places near the end of the first century. Ehrman does this while remaining completely silent on all of the scholarship that disagrees with him. He then strongly discounts the writings of Papias that lend support to credible, traditionally-accepted authorship. Concerning this, Kruger says:

Ehrman’s abrupt dismissal of the testimony of Papias is a remarkable thing to behold for anyone familiar with the development of early Christianity. Aside from ignoring recent works that take Papias very seriously…Ehrman also misrepresents a number of details: (i) he only discusses the date when Papias wrote (c. 110-140), but doesn’t mention the time to which Papias is referring, namely c. 90-100 A.D. This puts Papias’s testimony at a very critical juncture that cannot be so easily dismissed. (ii) Ehrman repeatedly characterizes Papias as receiving his information “third- or fourth-hand.”…However, there are good reasons to think that Papias heard the apostle John himself preach, or at least John “the elder,” who knew John the apostle.[8]

Chapter 5 is a sort of summary on why Ehrman believes that we can’t trust much of anything written about the historical figure of Jesus. Building upon the foundation constructed in prior chapters, he endeavors to further discredit biblical accounts of Jesus because of the signs and miracles they record. He is clearly espousing a naturalistic presupposition on the matter. His words are “Historians can only establish what probably happened in the past, and by definition, miracles are the least probable of occurrences.”[9] This is classic circular reasoning. After all, the miraculous is what he’s arguing against. Essentially, for Ehrman, accounts of the miraculous are not credible because miracles aren’t likely. He goes on to tout the importance of the lack of documentation of the life of Jesus in Greek and Roman sources of the time. Ultimately, Ehrman says, the Gospels “are books written decades after the fact by authors who had heard stories about Jesus from the oral tradition, stories that had been altered and even made up over time…the Gospel writers themselves changed them as they saw fit.”[10] Nowhere in his discussion is a dissenting position explored.

In chapters 6 and 7, Ehrman discusses his views on how the New Testament came to be, including the process of canonization. Not surprisingly, he leaves no room for the idea that canonization could have been divinely supervised as the church fathers recognized the inspiration of particular books. Rather, he calls it the result of a long dispute between the great diversity of Christian groups. In other words, it was “just an accident of history that this particular version of Christianity ‘won’.”[11] The mistake that Ehrman makes here is his assumption that just because there was diversity in views concerning what should comprise the canon, that none of the views could be correct.[12] His closing statement in chapter 7 sums up his personal views on Christianity: “[it] represents a human invention—in terms of its historical and cultural significance, arguably the greatest invention in the history of Western civilization.”[13]

In the closing chapter of Jesus, Interrupted, Ehrman asks the question, “Is faith possible?”[14] He denies that his agenda is to completely discredit the faith, but rather to “make serious scholarship on the bible and earliest Christianity accessible and available to people…who have never heard what scholars have long known and thought about it.” This is yet another instance of his over-generalizations on the nature of scholarly opinion, saying that the presented views are the “more intelligent and thoughtful.”[15] In the end, for Ehrman, developing these opinions led to a loss of his faith, but he claims respect for those who do not lose theirs, provided they at least agree with him that the Bible is full of irresolvable discrepancy and contradiction, not a trustworthy source of information and insight about God.

According to Ehrman, what are we to make of the Bible? He stops short of spouting the phrase, “it’s all relative.” Instead he says that “people need to use their intelligence to evaluate what they find to be true and untrue in the bible. This is how we need to live life generally.” It is ironic that in defacing one religion he is promoting another, namely, postmodern agnosticism.[16]

As a scholar, Bart Ehrman is far from unbiased, and often uses fallacious techniques to prove his points. When there is a reasonable solution to any given discrepancy, he doesn’t bring it into consideration, much less offer scholarly viewpoints that oppose his own. Jesus, Interrupted is not, in fact, an objective look at difficulties and discrepancies in the Bible. Rather, it is an approach to textual criticism that contains weak and sometimes fallacious argumentation. It makes for an interesting and profitable exercise in apologetic refutation, but should not be taken as the majority of scholars’ point of view on all (if any) of the material that it covers.

[1] Witherington, “Bart, Interrupted.”

[2] Mark 15:34

[3] Ehrman, 66.

[4] Ehrman, 67.

[5] Luke 23:34

[6] Luke 23:46

[7] Ehrman, 69.

[8] Kruger, 506.

[9] Ehrman, 179.

[10] Ehrman, 151.

[11] Kruger, 507.

[12] Kruger, 508.

[13] Ehrman, 268.

[14] Ehrman, 268.

[15] Ehrman, 272.

[16] Kruger, 509.

2 thoughts on “Analysis of Bart Ehrman’s Jesus, Interrupted–Part 2

  1. This is very well done, Melissa. I can’t imagine the time you are putting into this in addition to homeschooling & your own school work! I certainly enjoy reaping the benefits of your time & energy!

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