Bart, Interrupted – Part 2

Posted: October 11, 2010 in bible, books, christianity

Continued from Part 1.
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Chock Full of Discrepensies

Now that some of Ehrman’s questionable methods of persuasion have been examined, we will look at some of the evidence that Ehrman does provide in support of his thesis.  The first, and perhaps most direct, evidence that Ehrman cites in his attack on the Bible is the fact that the Bible is “chock full of discrepancies, many of them irreconcilable.”[1] Although he does provide other reasons for questioning the inerrancy of the Bible, his chapter entitled “A World of Contradictions” seems to be the most important.[2] If Ehrman can demonstrate that the Bible contains irresolvable contradictions and errors, then all evangelical notions about inspiration and inerrancy surely become null and void.  Therefore, it is to this issue that we will now turn.

Ehrman begins his chapter on the contradictions within the Bible by making an important distinction between inconsequential differences, differences that seem to “stand somewhat at odds” with one another, and discrepancies that “simply cannot be reconciled.”[3] Ehrman acknowledges that the first two categories of differences are not necessarily a problem for the belief in the Bible’s inerrancy.  He even goes so far as to write,

“My point is not simply that the Bible is full of contradictions…this is not the ultimate point-even though discrepancies in the Bible do create certain problems for people with a certain kind of Christian faith.”[4]

However, his claim that true contradictions are not his “ultimate point” seems rather disingenuous considering the title of the chapter.[5] Additionally, this admission regarding the distinction between differences, while important, does not seem to significantly impact the way that Ehrman argues his case in the rest of the chapter.  Ehrman has no problem switching back and forth between speaking of differences, discrepancies, and contradictions, in quick succession.  The result of this semantic slight-of-hand is that the reader often reads the terms as if they all mean the same thing and have equal argumentative weight.

Ehrman occasionally notes that conservative scholars have offered explanations for many of the discrepancies he lists.  However, again he does not cite any of these “people”[6] and always presents them in a bad light.  In fact, his bias against such explanations is so deep that he ridicules any attempt to “reconcile” the supposed irreconcilable discrepancies.  He broadly paints all such attempts as requiring “interpretive ingenuity”[7] and a “pious imagination,”[8] and yet he never offers his readers a fair and complete presentation of the conservative response to any particular case.  Again, it seems that Ehrman is banking on the fact that most of his readers will not take the time to consult a conservative commentary, which would quickly dispel the notion that all attempts at reconciling any apparent conflicts are pure flights of fancy.[9] A more transparent and honest approach would have been to cite some of the conservative scholars who offer serious, scholarly, and often persuasive explanations of many of the supposed “contradictions.”

For example, Norman Giesler’s important work on the inerrancy of Scripture, aptly titled Inerrancy[10], provides solid exegetical explanations for many of the “discrepancies” pointed out by Ehrman.  James White devotes an entire chapter to the issue in his book Scripture Alone.[11] One might also turn to F. F. Bruce’s classic The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable?.[12] New Testament scholar and commentator Ben Witherington emphasizes the importance of understanding and acknowledging the different historiography of the New Testament authors.[13] This has serious implications for how one judges the historicity and reliability of the Gospel narratives.  Darrell Bock, research professor of New Testament studies at Dallas Theological Seminary says it well when he writes,

“The conservative writers Erhman apparently wishes to challenge (and mostly ignore) have engaged on all the “non-new” points Ehrman makes, even highlighting themselves the “human” side of the Bible’s production. But partly by caricature and partly by setting rules where God cannot be invoked in a historical discussion, Ehrman proceeds.”[14]

Finally, before actually citing examples of these “discrepancies” (or “differences” or “contradictions”), Ehrman notes that his goal is not to point out each and every discrepancy, but only “some of the most interesting or important ones.”[15] He assures his readers that they will find “plenty more” if they read the Bible carefully for themselves.  This paper will only examine two specific examples that Ehrman cites.  However, these will be sufficient to illustrate the fact that Ehrman’s approach to, and assumptions about, the text predispose him to finding problems when there are none.  He seems unjustifiably skeptical of the New Testament authors, not giving them the benefit of the doubt or allowing them to speak for themselves, in their own ways.  Thus, his approach is unfair and painfully biased.  The result is he misleads his readers.

Judas’ Betrayal

The first example that we will examine is the purported discrepancies in the four Gospels relating to Judas’s motives for betraying Jesus.  Ehrman writes, “The four accounts differ on why Judas did the foul deed.”[16] He proceeds to explain that although there is no specific reason stated in Mark, it is reasonable to assume that it was out of greed.[17] The Gospel of Matthew explicitly states that Judas betrayed Jesus for the money.[18] Luke says that Satan entered into Judas, which then led him to go to the chief priests scheme about his betrayal.[19] Finally, Ehrman notes that John says that Judas himself is called “a devil,” which seems to be a completely different explanation.[20]

First, it is important to note that none of these motives are actually contradictory.  It is completely plausible to assume that Judas, under the influence of Satan, betrayed Jesus out of greed, and that because Jesus knew of his betrayal, he spoke of him as “a devil,” highlighting his truly devilish qualities.  Thus, this example does nothing to support the thesis of Ehrman’s book.  However, there is a much more important and sinister issue here that must be examined.  Ehrman’s presentation of the “evidence” is not complete.  Rather, he seems to have selectively chosen which “facts” to present and which to omit.  First, while he is correct in saying that Luke records that Satan entered into Judas, thus leading him to go to the chief priests, he surprisingly omits the contents of the next two verses:

He [Judas] went away and conferred with the chief priests and officers how he might betray him to them.  And they were glad, and agreed to give him money. (Luke 22:4-5)

Luke also records that Judas received money for his betrayal of Jesus.  Clearly in Luke’s mind, the fact that Satan entered into Judas and the fact that he received money for the “foul deed” was not problematic.  Ehrman’s omission of this important fact is either the result of a startling incompetence in regards to the biblical text, or else a deliberate distortion of the evidence to support his thesis.

But it gets worse.  While Ehrman is correct to note that John records Jesus describing Judas as “a devil,” John also notes something else about Judas:

Then after he [Judas] had taken the morsel, Satan entered into him.  Jesus said to him, “What you are going to do, do quickly.” (John 13:27)

Again, Ehrman conveniently leaves this verse out of his presentation of John’s explanation of Judas’s betrayal.  He chooses to cite only the verse where Jesus calls Judas “a devil.”  Rather than supporting Ehrman’s claims about the veracity and reliability of the New Testament, the example of Judas and his betrayal of Jesus actually does quite the opposite.  All four Gospel writers share a common understanding of Judas’s motives.

The Triumphal Entry

The second supposed problem with the biblical text that we will examine relates to Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem a few days before his crucifixion.  Ehrman focuses on Matthew’s account of this important event, noting not a contradiction, but an “odd image.”[21] In Matthew 21:4-5, Matthew quotes Zechariah 9:9, which speaks of Israel’s king riding triumphantly on a donkey:

Behold, your king is coming to you,
Humble, and mounted on a donkey,
And on a colt, the foal of a donkey. (Zechariah 9:9)

Ehrman writes, “Matthew evidently did not understand [the poetic parallelism of Zechariah 9:9], leading to some rather bizarre results.”  He continues,

”In Matthew, Jesus’ disciples procure two animals for him, a donkey and a colt; they spread their garments over the two of them, and Jesus rode into town straddling them both.”[22]

The problem with this argument is that this is not what Matthew is saying at all.  The “odd image” that Ehrman attempts to attribute to the biblical author is, in fact, Mr. Ehrman’s image alone.  As Leon Morris notes in his commentary on Matthew,

He sat on them means, of course, that he sat on the cloaks, not the animals; it is not easy to see why some commentators affirm so dogmatically that Matthew is speaking of the impossible situation of sitting on two animals.”[23]

In portraying Matthew’s account as he did, Ehrman seemingly questions Matthew’s basic common sense, especially as the riding of donkeys was certainly much more prevalent in Matthew’s day than today.  Frankly put, “[Matthew] came from a culture that knew more about riding on asses than do modern New Testament scholars – people actually rode asses in those days.”[24]

Additionally, Morris notes that it is equally incredible to assume that Matthew did not understand Hebrew parallelism.  The fact that Zechariah was speaking poetically does not necessarily mean that the prophecy could not have had a literal fulfillment (i.e. two animals were with Jesus during his triumphal procession).

It is important to note that Morris’s explanation is not fanciful or imaginative.  Rather, he simply gives the New Testament author the benefit of the doubt, in this case by assuming that the author had common sense.  Ehrman does not do this.  And this is par for the course in relation to many of the other “problems” that Ehrman raises.  Unfortunately, as has already been mentioned, Ehrman skillfully depreciates the value of investigating any conservative explanations to these supposed discrepancies, thus making it unlikely that the average reader will actually consult a commentary like Morris’s.  Additionally, Ehrman never cites any conservative commentaries that might provide an alternative interpretation or explanation of a particular passage.

Conclusion

Bart Ehrman’s book Jesus, Interrupted, contains many manipulative, distortive, and dishonest tactics, designed to convince the reader of the author’s viewpoint.  Additionally, the author does not provide important citations in support of his claims, is unfair in his characterization of the scholarly consensus regarding the reliability of the Bible and the value of the contributions of conservative scholars, and creates false dichotomies in the minds of his readers.  Finally, Ehrman’s thesis that the Bible contains innumerable problematic discrepencies is not supported by a complete and fair reading of the passages in question.  While there certainly are difficult passages, passages which require careful and honest examination, these are few and far between.

The vast majority of examples cited by Ehrman are not contradictions, but rather differences in emphasis or perspective, or due the variance between modern historiographical standards and those of the New Testament era.  None of this, however, is taken into account in Jesus, Interrupted.  Thus, the book fails to convince educated readers of its flawed and extremely biased thesis.  Despite this fact, the book may still prove convincing to many lay people; therefore, it must be read, understood, and adequately opposed by those who, by God’s grace, are able to explain and defend His holy Word and the Gospel of His Son.


Endnotes:
[1] Ehrman, Interrupted, p. 19.
[2] The books subtitle makes this clear.
[3] Ehrman, Interrupted, p. 22.
[4] Ehrman, Interrupted, p. 20.  Note how he changes words midway through the paragraph, from “contradictions” to “discrepancies.”  Ehrman does this often, which allows him to confuse his terms and thus imply things that are simply not supported by the evidence.
[5] Again, the title of the chapter is “A World of Contradictions.”  This is an odd title considering the fact that the majority of differences he cites are not actually contradictory.  The very title of the book also seems less than forthright.  However, a book with the subtitle “Revealing the Hidden Differences in the Bible” probably would not have sold as well…
[6] Ehrman does not even label them “scholars.”  See Interrupted, p. 27.
[7] Ibid, p. 59.
[8] Ibid, p. 273.
[9] I am not saying that all the explanations given by conservative scholars should be accepted, or even considered viable options.  It is true that some explanations are not just unsatisfying, but downright silly.  However, Ehrman implies that all such attempts are silly.  This, frankly, is not the case, and Ehrman should have acknowledged this fact.
[10] Norman L. Geisler, Inerrancy (Grand Rapids: Acadamie Books, 1980).
[11] James R. White, Scripture Alone (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2004) pp. 154-168.
[12] F. F. Bruce, The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1981).
[13] See Witherington’s 6-part review of Jesus, Interrupted, which he posted on his blog. <http://benwitherington.blogspot.com/2009/04/bart-interrupted-detailed-analysis-of.html&gt;
[14] Blog post by Darrell Bock entitled, “Ehrman’s Newest Entry,” < http://blog.bible.org/bock/node/456&gt;.
[15] Ehrman, Interrupted, p. 20.
[16] Ibid, p. 45.
[17] Ehrman cites Mark 14:10-11, which speaks of the chief priests promising to pay Judas money for betraying Jesus.  I agree with Ehrman that the Gospel seems to clearly imply that Judas was acting out of greed.
[18] See Matthew 26:14.
[19] See Luke 22:3.
[20] See John 6:70-71.
[21] Ehrman, Interrupted, p. 50.
[22] Ibid.
[23] Leon Morris, The Gospel According to Matthew (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992) p. 522.  See also Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, eds. G. K. Beale and D. A. Carson (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007) pp. 64-65.
[24] Ibid.

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Comments
  1. Some Christians claim, “The Bible is all I need,” but this notion is not taught in the Bible itself. In fact, the Bible teaches the contrary idea (2 Peter 1:20–21, 3:15–16). The “Bible alone” theory was not believed by anyone in the early Church.

    It is new, having arisen only in the 1500s during the Protestant Reformation. The theory is a “tradition of men” that nullifies the Word of God, distorts the true role of the Bible, and undermines the authority of the Church Jesus established (Mark 7:1–8).

    Although popular with many “Bible Christian” churches, the “Bible alone” theory simply does not work in practice. Historical experience disproves it. Each year we see additional splintering among “Bible-believing” religions.

    Today there are tens of thousands of competing denominations, each insisting its interpretation of the Bible is the correct one. The resulting divisions have caused untold confusion among millions of sincere but misled Christians.

    Just open up the Yellow Pages of your telephone book and see how many different denominations are listed, each claiming to go by the “Bible alone,” but no two of them agreeing on exactly what the Bible means.

    We know this for sure: The Holy Spirit cannot be the author of this confusion (1 Corinthians 14:33). God cannot lead people to contradictory beliefs because his truth is one. The conclusion? The “Bible alone” theory must be false.

    • matttully says:

      Michael,
      I think we would be in a lot of agreement. However, I would counter that the “The Bible is all I need” trend that we see in some churches today is not actually a Reformation principle. The Reformers’ cry of sola Scriptura is better understood as “Scripture is the sole ultimate authority“. The Reformers did not say that all traditions (i.e. creeds, practices) and/or church decisions (i.e. ecumenical councils) were useless and bad. Rather, they argued that all such traditions must be tested by the Scriptures and not be considered authoritative in the same way that the Bible is authoritative.

      Ben Witherington actually just wrote a helpful post on this exact topic at his blog. I would encourage you to check it out!

  2. Blaise says:

    Great post Matt Tully! Another book that would be extremely helpful for this topic is Craig Bloomberg’s The Historical Reliability of the Gospels. It is unfortunate that modern Christians don’t realize how much value the reformers placed on the early church fathers. I couldn’t agree more with your clarification to Michael.

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