Jesus Interrupted

Michael Kruger

Jesus Interrupted
By Bart D. Ehrman
304 p.
HarperOne (March 2009)

This review has been used by permission as appeared in WTJ 71, no.2, Fall 2009

Just in time for Easter, Bart Ehrman has (again) offered another popular-level assault on the historical integrity of the Bible.  One begins to wonder how many different ways this can be done by Ehrman.  In Lost Christianities (2003) he challenged the Bible on the basis of theological diversity in the early church, in Lost Scriptures (2003) he challenged the Bible on the basis of the development of the canon, in Misquoting Jesus (2005) he challenged the Bible on the basis of textual transmission, and in God's Problem (2007) he challenged the Bible on the basis of the problem of evil.  Regardless of the particular topic, the overall message of all these books is very much the same: Christians need to wake up to the fact that the Bible they so cherish is not to be trusted.  Indeed, as Ehrman has sought to engage the lay public directly with this message it seems that his academic career (at least in recent years) has largely turned, well, non-academic.   At times he has seemed more preacher than scholar. With an impressive amount of evangelistic zeal, and frequent personal testimonies, he has preached his message with earnestness, persuasiveness, and urgency--hoping to convert any person in the pew who still refuses to accept the so-called scholarly consensus regarding the New Testament, or any who might dare to think the Jesus of the gospels might happen to look a lot like the Jesus of history, and certainly any who refuse to think that all views of Jesus must be regarded as equally valid.  Ehrman has told us his days as a Baptist preacher are over.  Clearly the Baptist part is over.   As for the preacher part, there are reasons to doubt.
Ehrman's crusade continues with his most recent book, Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (and Why We Don't Know About Them).  The core message is the same as the books above--when it comes to historical matters the Bible is a jumbled mess--but the particular vehicle for this message has changed.  Here Ehrman hones in on the question of internal contradictions within the text itself (primarily in the gospels), arguing that the biblical writers disagree with each other both historically and theologically (though he also addresses a number of other topics in later chapters).  Ehrman's concern throughout the entire volume is that the average person in the pew knows little or nothing about modern historical criticism of the Bible because their pastors, for whatever reason, are refusing to tell them.  There is a conspiratorial implication in all of this--your pastor really knows and believes these things and is keeping them a secret.   It never seems to dawn on Ehrman (or at least is not acknowledged) that maybe some pastors are not telling these things to their congregations because they think they are not true. Nevertheless, Ehrman presents himself as a bit of a liberator; he is the one with the courage to be honest with Bible-believing Christians and "let the cat out of the bag" (2).  Of course, there are substantial doubts about whether the cat is really still in the bag in the first place, but subtitles like "Revealing the Issues of the Bible Everyone Already Knows About" sell a lot fewer books.
We shall do our best to say a word about each of the chapters in Ehrman's volume, though space prohibits a lengthy discussion of any of them.  Not surprisingly, the first chapter, "A Historical Assault on Faith," sets the tone for the entire book as Ehrman labors to reassure the reader that all his opinions about the Bible are merely "standard fare" amongst modern scholars (18).  Thus begins his repeated appeals (which continues throughout all the chapters) to the unquestionable consensus of the academy, claiming these things are believed by "all my closest friends" (17), are "widely taught in seminaries and divinity schools" (18), and are "widely accepted among New Testament scholars" (271).  This type of academic bullying is actually quite an effective strategy for Ehrman.  It allows his own views, from the very start, to be seen as eminently sensible and objective (after all, what lay reader is willing to go against all the world's scholars?) and presents evangelicals as the intellectual equivalent to those who deny the lunar landings or believe in a flat earth.  Indeed, in this opening chapter he describes evangelicals in his university classes as those who "cover their ears and hum loudly so that they don't have to hear anything that might cause them to doubt their cherished beliefs" (14).  Such ridicule forces the reader into a false (but effective) dilemma: (1) maintain your belief in the Bible by sacrificing your intellectual integrity; or (2) embrace all the conclusions of modern critical scholarship.  By framing the debate in such a way, the reader is forced to decide which way to go before any evidence is even examined.  It is not surprising, then, that the rest of the chapters in the book come off as more convincing to the average reader than they otherwise would--Ehrman's strategy forces their hand from the very first page.  For one who claims to be nothing but an unbiased historian, this is an odd place to begin a book.  In addition, nowhere in this opening chapter does Ehrman present any evidence (other than his own opinion) that his views are representative of almost all seminaries.  He fails to mention that of all the ATS-accredited seminaries in the United States, the top ten largest seminaries are all evangelical.  These seminaries represent thousands and thousands of students, and hundreds and hundreds of professors.  If virtually all seminary professors agree with Ehrman, then who are these professors teaching at the ten largest US seminaries?  Apparently the only schools that count in Ehrman's analysis of modern seminaries 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.

In chapters 2 and 3, Ehrman enters into the bulk of his argument for internal contradictions (both historical and theological).  Needless to say, there is not space to engage the list of supposed contradictions directly, but there are a number of observations that need to be made.  

 1. When faced with the option to harmonize various accounts in the gospels (even when the solution is relatively plausible), Ehrman resists time and time again. His standard reason for resisting is because he believes that harmonization causes you "to create your own version of the Gospel, one different from both the ones you are reading" (22).  Similarly, he declares that harmonization would "create yet a third version of a scene, unlike either Mark or Luke" (54).  These objections are perplexing coming from a scholar like Ehrman.   After all, ancient historiography, by definition, has inherent limitations 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. What does he expect?   There will always be the story of "what actually happened" that stands behind every historical account; this situation is inevitable when one recognizes that no single source is (or can be) exhaustive.  Incredibly, the very thing that historians are supposed to do--piece together "what actually happened" from the records available to us--is the very thing Ehrman refuses to do (and even implies is scandalous).  One is not surprised, then, when Ehrman concludes that the gospel stories cannot be harmonized.  His methodology allows for no other option.

2. In many of the examples of supposed contradictions, Ehrman seems unaware (though he is clearly not) of the manner in which ancient historiographical literature would record someone's words, sayings, or teachings.  Or, at least he never bothers to discuss these issues with his readers.  It is well known that the limitations inherent in historical accounts of speeches allow the author to summarize, condense, or paraphrase the words spoken (e.g., Thucydides, Tacitus, Josephus). Moreover, the fact that Jesus most likely taught in Aramaic, suggests that we should expect an additional degree of variance as different writers translate his words into Greek in different ways.  Nevertheless, Ehrman insists that differences in wording constitute real contradictions, such as when the centurion at the cross calls Jesus the "son of God" in Mark (15:39) and calls him "innocent" in Luke (23:47).  He doesn't consider the fact that one's righteous status is surely implied in the title "son of God," making these terms fairly interchangeable depending on the emphasis desired by the author.  Given Mark's preference for the "son of God" theme (1:1), and given Luke's concern to prove to the authorities that Jesus (and Christians) were innocent (1:3-4), these differences are quite intelligible. But, Ehrman is unable to operate with such nuance--it is almost like he expects the gospels to be like a videotape, capturing exactly what happened in a very literal, wooden fashion.  But this is simply not how history works.  Perhaps Ehrman thinks that the doctrine of inspiration requires that the gospels always record the very words (ississima verba) of Jesus (or of whoever is talking).  One could even imagine his objection, "How can you believe you have the word of God if you don't really have Jesus' words? Don't you think the very words matter?" But (whether Ehrman would phrase it this way or not), it is important to realize that the gospels can be the very word of God even if they do not contain the literal words of Jesus--God can inspire a paraphrase of Jesus' words (ipsissima vox) which can effectively communicate his message.  Ehrman's inability to accept the natural verbal flexibility in ancient literature suggests that he (ironically) still may be reading the gospels in the same way he did in his fundamentalist days, placing modern expectations of precision and rigidness on the gospel texts that they were not meant to bear.

3. Likewise, Ehrman also fails to appreciate that ancient historiographical literature does not necessarily stick to a wooden chronological order--events (and aspects of those events) are often arranged for thematic and topical reasons; and sometimes they are condensed and compressed. For example, Ehrman complains that Luke's gospel has the tearing of the veil before the death of Jesus (23:45), whereas Mark's gospel has it after the death of Jesus (15:38).  However, it is clear that Luke has mentioned the tearing of the veil before the crucifixion simply so that he can list it alongside the other cosmic signs (e.g., the darkness, failing of the sun).   Luke is simply saying, "Here are the cosmic signs that happened at Jesus' death" without insisting on their particular order the morning Jesus hung on the cross.  This type of chronological flexibility is not unusual in the gospels (nor in other ancient literature), but is surprisingly missed by Ehrman.  If taken into account, it can go a long way towards explaining a number of the other supposed discrepancies he mentions: the details surrounding the birth narratives, the calling of the first disciples, and the resurrection appearances.

4.  Perhaps the most frustrating portion of these chapters is when Ehrman attempts to argue for theological contradictions, as opposed to just historical ones.  Here is where Ehrman enters into what is typically foreign territory for him: biblical exegesis, biblical theology, and systematic theology.   Although he is an expert in the area of textual criticism, his limited experience in these areas quickly becomes apparent.  For instance, one of Ehrman's main examples of a theological contradiction is the difference between Matthew and Paul on the role of the OT law.  Of course, discussions of the way the OT law applies in the NT can be notoriously complicated and require a good bit of nuance and distinction.  Unfortunately, Ehrman's discussion proves to be remarkably shallow and exhibits no awareness of the major issues or categories--no discussion of the different kinds of OT laws, no discussion of the three uses of the moral law of God, no nuance regarding the role of works as fruit of salvation versus grounds of salvation, no careful distinction between justification and sanctification, and no mention of how these issues have been understood historically.  Instead, Ehrman paints with a considerably broad brush and offers no detailed exegesis.  Thus, he makes statements that are demonstrably wrong such as, "Paul thought that followers of Jesus who tried to keep the law were in danger of losing their salvation" (90).  One wonders, then, how can Paul declare, "It is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified" (Rom 2:13)? More precision is needed here.  Likewise, Ehrman claims that Matthew teaches one is saved by good works and that "salvation comes to those who have never even heard of Jesus" (92).  Again, one is perplexed by Ehrman's exegesis given that in Matthew's gospel Jesus declares, "No one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to who the Son chooses to reveal him" (11:27)--hardly an indication that salvation comes apart from Jesus. Moreover, what is the sense of the Great Commission to the ends of the earth if salvation comes apart from Jesus (Matthew 28)?  Or, if salvation comes by good works, why would Jesus utter, "This is my blood of the covenant which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins"?  This sounds suspiciously like Jesus is saying his death is the basis for the forgiveness of sins, not good works.  One is also reminded of the parable of the laborers in the vineyard (Matt 20:1-16) where people in the parable are rewarded not because of their labors but because of the grace of the vineyard owner--the opposite of Ehrman's claim.  And beyond all of this, if Jesus is irrelevant for salvation, why would Matthew even write a gospel about Jesus at all, particularly one that so dramatically focuses on his death and resurrection?   Ehrman addresses none of these issues. In the end, his theological objections are similar to the kind one might read on an internet blog or web chat room; they may have a lot of zeal behind them, but stem from only a cursory reading of the biblical text and exhibit little real understanding of the issues.   

In chapter four, Ehrman discusses the authorship of the four gospels and argues that none of them were written by disciples or eyewitnesses, but by anonymous Christians in the late first century.   The arguments here are nothing new, but what is new (or at least noteworthy) is the degree to which Ehrman simply ignores any scholars (even critical ones) who disagree with him.  After confidently proclaiming that the titles of the gospels are late and irrelevant (103), he offers no discussion of Martin Hengel's work on the gospel titles in his Studies in the Gospel of Mark (1985) where he argues that the titles must have been very early due to their remarkable uniformity (amongst other reasons).  Likewise, 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, including the work of Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses (2006) and Byrskog, Story as History--History as Story (2002), 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' 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" (he repeats this claim at least five times in just two pages, 108-109).  However, there are good reasons to think that Papias heard the apostle John himself preach (Irenaeus, Haer. 5.33.4), or at least John "the elder" (Eusebius, Hist. eccl. 3.39.7) who knew John the apostle.  Either way, Ehrman's characterization of Papias' sources is substantially misleading. At worst, Papias' testimony is second-hand and may even be first-hand. (iii) Ehrman claims Papias is unreliable because Papias testifies that Mark wrote his gospel so as "not to leave out anything" he heard from the apostle Peter.   But, says Ehrman, Mark's brief gospel clearly cannot be everything that Mark heard from Peter (after all, you can read it in about two hours), therefore Papias is untrustworthy and should be rejected (109).  The desperate nature of this argument--and its blatant bias against Papias--is genuinely stunning.  Aside from pressing Papias' words in an overly literal manner (Ehrman should know better), he fails to realize that this language ("not to leave out anything") is a standard formula used by other ancient writers (e.g., Lucian, Dionysius) to denote the fact that they omitted nothing of importance in their account; i.e., it is a general claim by an author that he has been honest with the facts.   Thus, what Ehrman (erroneously) takes as evidence against Papias, is actually impressive evidence for Papias being historically trustworthy.

Chapter 5 can be summarized as "things Ehrman still believes that the academic world has long rejected."  He offers a re-heated version of Schweitzer's view that Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet--while drawing material from his book, Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium (1999)--but never bothers to tell his audience that Schweitzer's theories have been largely discredited and most "Questers" today have moved on to other views.  Likewise, Ehrman attempts to resurrect (pun intended) David Hume's argument against miracles by suggesting the historian can never declare that a miracle is the most probable explanation because, by definition, miracles are always the least plausible events.  Again, he does not mention (or does not know) that Hume's arguments have been roundly critiqued as fallacious, even by secular philosophers (one need only read John Earman, Hume's Abject Failure, Oxford, 2000).   Unaware of these philosophical issues, Ehrman makes statements that are overtly circular and often presupposes his own naturalistic worldview.  For example, he declares, "[The resurrection] is the least likely [explanation] because people do not come back to life, never to die again, after they are well and truly dead" (176).  But, isn't the question of whether people can "come back to life" the very issue being debated?  If so, then how can Ehrman simply assume they cannot as the basis for his argument?   He may as well argue, "People can't rise from the dead because people can't rise from the dead."  As the reader completes chapter 5, a growing irony begins to emerge--Ehrman has built his entire book on the premise that his ideas reflect the consensus of modern scholarship but it is becoming more and more clear that he stands very much in the minority.

In Chapter 6 and 7, Ehrman tackles the issue of the origins of the New Testament, focusing particularly on the development of the canon and the development of doctrine.  Drawing on his book Lost Christianities, he trots out (again) Walter Bauer's argument that early Christianity was a morass of "wild diversity" with no clear orthodoxy or heresy (191).  Thus, he argues, we have no reason to think the 27-book canon we possess is anything special; it is just an accident of history that this particular version of Christianity "won" the theological wars. Although Ehrman leans heavily on Bauer's thesis, he is willing to admit it has been substantively critiqued in regard to its core claims (215).  What is remarkable, however, is his willingness to maintain loyalty to Bauer's thesis despite these admissions.  Even though Bauer was mistaken about the extent of orthodoxy in early Christianity (Bauer underestimated it) and mistaken about the early presence of orthodoxy in various geographical regions (Bauer vastly overplayed the argument from silence), Ehrman seems unfazed in his commitment to Bauer: "But, Bauer's basic portrayal...appears to be correct" (215).   In other words, despite the fact that Bauer was wrong in his particulars, we can still affirm that Christianity was very diverse, even more than we thought.   And we see here a remarkable shift in the way modern scholars, like Ehrman, use Bauer.  The particulars are (generally) abandoned and now the mere existence of diversity itself becomes the argument.  All one must do is trumpet the vast disparity of views within early Christianity and, by definition, no one version of Christianity can be considered "original" or "orthodox."   To readers immersed in a postmodern world where tolerance of various viewpoints requires that no one viewpoint be correct, such an argument can prove quite compelling.  However, the mere existence of diversity within early Christianity proves nothing about whether a certain version can be right or true.  Ehrman's extensive cataloging of diversity makes for an interesting historical survey but does not prove what he thinks it does, namely that apocryphal books have an equal claim to originality as the books of the New Testament.   The only way that the mere existence of diversity could demonstrate such a thing is if there was nothing about the New Testament books to distinguish them from the apocryphal books.  But, that is an enormous assumption that is slipped into the argument without being proven.  In the end, Ehrman's incessant focus on the diversity within early Christianity proves to be a red herring of sorts, distracting us from the real issues at hand.  It discourages us from asking the hard questions about what distinguishes books from one another, and insists that all versions of Christianity must have equal claim to originality.  Ironically, then, Ehrman's commitment to the Bauer thesis serves not to encourage careful and nuanced historical investigation, but actually serves to stifle such historical investigation by insisting that only the random flow of history can possibly account for why some books were received and other were not.    

In the final chapter (8), Ehrman leaves his general critique of Christianity and puts forward his own views about faith, God, and religion.  Here he offers his fundamental maxim, "In my opinion, people need to use their intelligence to evaluate what they find true and untrue in the Bible" and thus you need "to pick and choose what you want to accept" (281).    In other words, the historical criticism of the Bible shows us that we cannot look to a book as our authority--each person is their own authority and must decide for themselves what is right or wrong, true or false.  Ehrman sums it up, "This is how we need to live life generally" (281).   Although this everyone-gets-to-pick-their-own-truth conclusion comes as no surprise to the reader, it is where Ehrman's entire book (and worldview) begins to unravel at the seams.  While on the one hand Ehrman wants to insist that everyone gets to decide truth for themselves, on the other hand he turns around and makes numerous (and even dogmatic) moral claims throughout the book.  Indeed, one of his primary objections against the Bible is that it does not measure up morally.  He offers a moral objection to the destruction of Jericho saying it is "unworthy of God" (10).  He offers moral objections to the doctrine of hell by declaring it would make God a "never-dying eternal divine Nazi" (276).  He makes moral objections to Paul's teaching on women and homosexuality saying that there are other views (presumably his own) that are morally "superior" and "better" (280).  And on and on he goes. These are strong words by Ehrman--sweeping declarations about the way God (and the Bible) ought to be.   And by this point the reader begins to wonder: Where does Ehrman get these moral norms?  How does he know that some doctrines of the Bible are morally superior to others?   Where does he get the idea that something like hell would be morally reprehensible?   How does he know what is "worthy" of God? What standard is he using?   Incredibly, Ehrman makes these grand moral claims in the very book where he insists that everyone gets to decide truth for themselves and therefore should not be making grand moral claims.  Which one is it?  It takes a good bit of audacity to chide evangelicals for using scripture as grounds for absolute moral norms, and then to turn around and offer your own absolute moral norms smuggled in through the back door.  At least Evangelicals have coherent grounds for making moral truth claims--after all, the Bible purports to be the very words of God--but what grounds does Ehrman have, as an agnostic, for making such moral truth claims?  Apparently he wants us to accept these claims on his own authority.

Now I suppose Ehrman could back off at this point and say, "Oh I don't really mean there are moral norms in the universe, I am just saying the God of the Bible personally offends me."  But, this response has its own problems: (i) If all Ehrman is saying is that he does not personally like the God of the Bible, then that has no bearing on the truth of the Bible or on whether the God of the Bible exists (or on much of anything). Things are not true or false, or right or wrong, depending on whether they happen to fit the private fancy of Bart Ehrman.  Not liking something is not an argument. For Ehrman's moral objection against the Bible to work there actually has to be some universal moral norm that the Bible has violated.  He has to be able to show that God ought to be one way, and ought not to be another. But, the problem is that he has just spent his entire book destroying the one thing that could provide that norm--the Bible itself.  (ii) If Ehrman wants to suggest all the moral claims in the book (and presumably moral claims everywhere) are just private opinion, then the end of the book becomes incoherent and contradictory when he exhorts the reader to "fight oppression" and "work for justice" and "to insist on peace" (283).  If everyone creates their own moral universe, then why should the reader care about any of these things?   Moreover, what is the definition of "oppression"?  And how do we define "justice"?  Ehrman's concluding moral applications sound so reasonable, but his own book has just undermined any foundation for them.  

In the end, Jesus Interrupted can be best summarized as a book filled with ironies.  Ironic that it purports to be about unbiased history but rarely presents an opposing viewpoint; ironic that it claims to follow the scholarly consensus but breaks from it so often; ironic that it insists on the historical-critical method but then reads the gospels with a modernist, overly-literal hermeneutic; ironic that it claims no one view of early Christianity could be "right" (Walter Bauer) but then proceeds to tell us which view of early Christianity is "right;" ironic that it dismisses Papias with a wave of the hand but presents the Gospel of the Ebionites as if it were equal to the canonical four; and ironic that it declares everyone can "pick and choose" what is right for them, but then offers its own litany of moral absolutes.  Such intellectual schizophrenia suggests there is more going on in Jesus Interrupted than meets the eye.  Though veiled in the garb of scholarship, this book is religious at the core.  Ehrman does not so much offer history as he does theology, not so much academics as he does his own ideology. The reader does not get a post-religious Ehrman as expected, but simply gets a new-religious Ehrman--an author who has traded in one religious system (Christianity) for another (postmodern agnosticism).  Thus, Ehrman is not out to squash religion as so many might suppose.  He is simply out to promote his own.  He is preacher turned scholar turned preacher.  And of all the ironies, perhaps that is the greatest.

Michael J. Kruger is the Associate Professor of New Testament and Academic Dean at Reformed Theological Seminary in Charlotte, NC.

Michael J. Kruger, "Jesus Interrupted: A Review", Reformation21 (November: 2009)


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