Bart, Interrupted – Part 1

Posted: October 7, 2010 in bible, books, christianity

This is the first part in a two-part series on Bart Ehrman’s book Jesus, Interrupted.  Click here for Part 2.

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Revealing the Manipulative Tactics of Bart Ehrman in Jesus, Interrupted

Bart Ehrman has enjoyed an enormous amount of success over the past few years.  Author of over twenty books, two of which were New York Times bestsellers[1], Ehrman has, perhaps singlehandedly, made reading about biblical textual criticism about as normal and accessible as reading about how to achieve “your best life now.”  He has been featured in Time Magazine and has been interviewed everywhere from NBC’s Dateline to Comedy Central’s The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.  In Misquoting Jesus, Ehrman provided readers with a crash course on biblical higher criticism, “revealing” the many historical problems with the Bible as we know it.

Jesus, Interrupted, Ehrman’s latest book, picks up where Misquoting Jesus left off.  Instead of focusing on the problems surrounding the transmission of the biblical text over the last two millennia, Ehrman turns his attention to problems within the Bible itself.  From the very beginning (literally), Ehrman is clear on his objective: “Revealing the hidden contradictions in the Bible (and why we don’t know about them).”[2]

Throughout the entirety of the book, Ehrman plows forward toward his goal of complete disclosure, portraying himself as a scholarly herald of truth and fact.  Ehrman’s goal seems to be the salvation of ignorant parishioners, deceived by fearful and intellectually-dishonest clergy, from the bondage of believing that the Bible is the “historically inerrant and inspired Word of God.”[3] However, despite his appeals to scholarship and objectivity, Ehrman employs many manipulative, disingenuous, and at times dishonest, tactics to persuade his readers.  In this series of posts, I hope detail just a few of these deceptive tactics.  I will then examine one issue in particular, the alleged contradictions within the biblical text, as illustrative of Ehrman’s distortion of the evidence.

The “Facts”

Ehrman goes to great lengths to present his book as a scholarly and objective presentation of the “facts” concerning the Bible.  Over and over again, he supports his views with the claim that most Bible scholars completely agree with what he is saying.  For example, in his conclusion Ehrman writes,

“The basic views that I’ve sketched here are widely known, widely taught, and widely accepted among New Testament scholars and their students.” [4]

Statements like this are literally littered throughout the entirety of the book.  This leads to the first obvious criticism of the book: the startling lack of citations.  Very rarely does Ehrman provide readers with any specific references to these mystery scholars and their works.  In fact, a large portion of the citations he does provide merely point to his own previous works.  While not proving that his propositions cannot be trusted, it certainly does not make it easy for readers to verify his boldly sweeping claims.  This problem is heightened when one considers the target audience of this book: lay people.  Ehrman’s appeals to scholarly authority are intended to reinforce the trust of the reader, bolstering their confidence in Ehrman’s words.  Although he would never admit it, it seems obvious that Ehrman is arguing, at least at times, by an appeal to authority, much the way many of the fundamentalists he rails against appeal to the Bible as their authority.  However, in his case, the authority is a host of unnamed Bible scholars.

Ehrman carefully crafts his words to create a false dichotomy in the minds of his readers: if you want to be on the side of scholarship, you must forgo any “evangelical” notions regarding the Bible.  This tactic is dubious for two reasons.  First, in doing this, Ehrman is not persuading his readers with evidence, but rather utilizing a power-tactic designed to force his readers to his conclusions before examining the evidence.[5] The reader feels pressure to either acquiesce to Ehrman’s views (since they are the views of the academic world) or else give into the apparently inherent anti-intellectualism of the evangelical camp.  Michael Kruger, associate professor of theology and academic dean of Reformed Theological Seminary, labels this “academic bullying.”[6] Second, it is misleading at best, and dishonest at worst, for Ehrman to claim that “the majority of serious scholars” agree with him.[7] As Kruger notes in his review, “[Ehrman] fails to mention that of all the ATS-accredited seminaries in the United States, the top ten largest seminaries are all evangelical.”  Again, Ehrman is asking readers to assume that he is representing the facts correctly.  Unfortunately, most of his readers are not in a position to question his sweeping statements.

Reading Critically vs. Reading Devotionally

A second false dichotomy Ehrman sets up is his distinction between reading the Bible “critically” (utilizing the historical-critical method of interpretation) and “devotionally” (looking for present day meaning and application).  Ehrman seems to suggest that it is not possible to approach the Bible in both ways, simultaneously. While scholars prefer and utilize the former approach, the devotional approach is the one learned “in church.”[8] The implication is that if a reader is looking for personal meaning and application in the text, they are disregarding “what the biblical writings meant in their original historical context.”[9] Not only is this dichotomy misleading, it is downright insulting.  It certainly is not the case that one cannot glean any personal application and meaning from a text when it is interpreted by the historical-critical method.

Additionally, Ehrman’s insinuation that those who seek to understand what the Bible says about God, Christ, salvation, man, etc. are neglecting to take into account the historical context, authorial intent, etc. is incredibly disingenuous.  A visit to any evangelical seminary’s introductory hermeneutics class or a cursory reading of any evangelical Bible commentary would be sufficient to dispel such a notion.[10] Influential New Testament scholar and bishop, N. T. Wright, illustrates this fact well.  In his book The Last Word, which is meant as a defense of the inspiration and authority of Scripture, Wright affirms the importance of “discovering what the writers meant as opposed to engaging in free-float scholarship.”[11] Wright also affirms the need to read each verse of Scripture “within its own chapter, each chapter within its own book, and each book within its own historical, cultural and indeed canonical setting.”[12] While it certainly is true that some Christians do approach the Bible inappropriately, Ehrman misrepresents reality when he implies that there is no middle ground between these two extremes.[13] Presumably, this false dichotomy is designed to influence readers against the view of the Bible which is taught “in church” (aka the conservative, evangelical view) before any evidence has actually been examined.

Just Trust Me

One final point should be noted before looking at Ehrman’s claim that the New Testament is full of contradictions.  In his preface, Ehrman begins by giving readers a run-through of his life story, and thus his journey from evangelicalism to liberalism and finally agnosticism.  He alludes to this journey often, at times devoting a significant number of pages to personal anecdotes.[14] These stories and reflections foster feelings of recognition and fellowship with the reader.  He seems to essentially be saying, “I’ve been there!  I know what you’re thinking, evangelical Christian.  You can trust me when I say there are a lot of problems with your view, because I once held it myself!”[15] In implying this, Ehrman seeks to give himself credibility.

While Ehrman certainly has the right to write (and also argue) in this way, this persuasive tactic should be noted for one very important reason.  Clearly Ehrman intends for these personal references to encourage his readers to adopt his views on the Bible.  Again, there is nothing inherently wrong with this method of persuasion, and Ehrman uses it masterfully.  However, the problem is that many of his readers, especially those without the benefit of a formal education, will not realize that Ehrman is not arguing on the basis of any evidence relating to the Bible.  Instead, he is again appealing to authority – in this case, his authority, as one who has “been there, done that.”  This type of argumentation seems out of place in a book that claims to be scholarly, objective, and all about the “facts.”

Continued in Part 2.

Endnotes:
[1] Misquoting Jesus and God’s Problem
[2] This is the book’s subtitle, proudly displayed on the cover.
[3] Bart D. Ehrman, Jesus, Interrupted (New York: HarperOne, 2009) p. 18.  For instances where Ehrman questions the honesty of pastors, see pp. 1, 12-13, 271-273.
[4] Ehrman, Interrupted, p. 271.
[5] This is ironic, as Ehrman rails against this very thing when it comes to evangelical Christians.
[6] See Kruger’s review of the book in WTJ 71, no. 2, Fall 2009.  The review was posted online at <http://www.reformation21.org/shelf-life/jesus-interrupted.php&gt;.
[7] Ehrman, Interrupted, p. 2.
[8] See Ehrman, Interrupted, p. 4.
[9] Ibid.
[10] I find it ironic that Ehrman went to Moody, which certainly would fall under the scope of his criticism.  Yet, it was at Moody that I learned and began to use the historical-critical method.  This approach to the biblical text has been emphasized and encouraged, and yet personal meaning and application has been affirmed as well.  To suggest that questions regarding God, Christ, and the church are inappropriate to ask when seeking to understand the author’s intended meaning is, to put it simply, ridiculous.  Ehrman seems to forget the glaring fact that the biblical writers were often writing about God, Christ, and the church.
[11] N. T. Wright, The Last World (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2005) p. 135.
[12] Wright, Last Word, p. 128.
[13] One of the worst views of the Bible often encountered in the evangelical church is the claim that the Bible is God’s “love letter” to the world.  I believe that this type of language about the Bible is dangerous and can often lead to distorted views of the text.  Perhaps if the evangelical church did a better job at emphasizing the historical nature of the Bible, carefully nuancing how modern readers should approach it, Ehrman and others like him would not be able to paint conservatives with such broad strokes.
[14] See pp. ix-xii, 13-18, 61-62, 101-102, 139-143, 181-183, 225-227, 269-283.  Essentially, Ehrman begins every chapter with some sort of personal anecdote, usually relating to his “journey” away from faith.
[15] For example, Ehrman writes, “Back at Moody I had found [Lewis’s Liar, Lunatic, or Lord? Argument] completely convincing, and for years I had used it myself in order to convince others of Jesus’ divinity.  But that was many years ago, and my thinking had changed drastically.” (p. 141)

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