Bart Ditched His Bible and He Wants You to Do the Same
A review of Jesus, Interrupted by Bart D. Ehrman
From the Top, the Bottom Line
Bart D. Ehrman has thoroughly researched the Bible and he is thoroughly convinced is a merely human invention. On that basis, he ditched his Bible and became an agnostic (officially a “doubter” that there is a God, functionally an atheist) and he wants you to do the same. Jesus, Interrupted is nothing more or less than the “science” of historical criticism warmed over and plated in a way to appeal to the widest possible audience. The book is not worth your time.
Dr. Bart Ehrman is the James A. Gray Distinguished Professor of – get this – Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. If an avowed agnostic directing a department of religious studies sounds oxymoronic, you may not need to read the rest of this review. You already get his schtick.
Visit his website and you’ll find Dr. Bart is a media darling. If Oprah were still dosing out daily secular culture, she would have Dr. Bart on the show as a regular. Not content to poison the waters of academia (he says that nearly all the experts agree with him anyway), Bart has set his site on the general public. It is his method to make this one-sided academic as folksy as possible so that more of us bumpkins will follow his lead. All that’s necessary is that you trust Dr. Bart implicitly when he says this is this and that is not what you thought it was.
He claims that his aim is not to tear down anyone’s faith, but his use of language, repetition, and his one-sided, single-minded propagandizing give the lie to that claim. Whether his real motive is to increase his fame, enlarge his followers, please his dog Billy, or what I don’t know. I do know that nobody goes to all this trouble for some selfless “Dragnet”-like presentation of “just the facts.” There is no reason to trust someone who possessed faith and recanted it (see 1 John 2:18-19 and 1 John 2:26-27; 5:10-11; 2 John 7-10).
If, for now, the reader hesitates, wondering if I am oversimplifying or overstating my case, let me offer the subtitle of the book; “Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (and Why We Don’t Know About Them).” No, I’m not making this stuff up. When you get beyond the cover, that kind of thing is repeated several times each chapter. Unless I missed something on Dr. Bart’s website, none of his degrees are in history. Just keep that in mind as he identifies himself as a historian. Now we’ll take a look at some of the details and see if there are answers to Dr. Bart’s rhetoric.
- Dr. Bart’s Thesis. “My thesis here is that not only is the Bible a very human book, but that Christianity as it has developed and come down to us today is a very human religion.” (p. 226)
- Dr. Bart’s Personal Application. “The Christian claim that their religion is also divinely inspired is a theological view that historians have no way of evaluating; historians don’t have access to God, only to what happens here on earth and in front of our eyes – or in front of someone else’s eyes. I personally do not accept this view any longer (though I once did); but as you will see in the final chapter, the historical findings I am discussing here do not necessarily lead to my personal agnostic conclusions.” (p. 227)
- Dr. Bart’s Main Points. Why you too should not believe the Bible is the Word of God.
a. The Bible is just a human book because we don’t really know who wrote these books. Under intense scrutiny experts in language and history find differences in books attributed to the same author. Dr. Bart helpfully supplies a number of reasons why someone would write a book claiming to be someone else. He concludes that this kind of duplicity is damning evidence of the unreliability of the Bible. That suits his case, but does it really matter? Is it impossible that God could inspire someone who wrote under a pseudonym? Comments like these delve into minutiae, constructing mountains out of molehills. Even if we give them this point, does it make any real difference?
b. The Bible is just a human book because we don’t like some of the things written there. This is the most convenient part of the opinions of Dr. Bart and his fellows; find something disagreeable almost everywhere they look.
Generally speaking, people with Dr. Bart’s point of view are Modernists who haven’t got the memo. They think the scientific method is all that and a bag of chips. So, let’s start by assuming an evolutionary frame of mind: what’s new (and incidentally trendy) is better. Only things that bow to the idol of reason or can be observed by the five senses are true: everything else is opinion, not fact. The short list of things cut down by this perspective include the non-scientific, extrasensory, and politically incorrect. Misogyny. Homophobia. Miracles. Divinity (the supernatural, not the fudge-like stuff grandma made at Christmas). Prophecy. Inerrancy. Infallibility. Inspiration. Capitalism.
c. The Bible is just a human book because the selection of the canon was done by the Church. Dr. Bart’s opinions rely on viewing these complex issues through a single lens; a “scientific historian” one. A modern, Western, scientific historical one. A viewpoint that looks like his. Put on your cardigan and suit coat with the leather elbow patches. A scraggly beard and glasses would help.
d. The Bible is just a human book because other ancient writers said so. As non-Christians, what would you expect? People outside the faith aren’t going to credit it as true. If Christianity competed with their worldview, they’d ignore it, decry it, or minimalize it.
e. Because the Bible is just a human book, we’ve entirely missed the point on Jesus; he actually was just an “apocalyptic Jewish prophet.” Yeah, try that on for size. Is anyone else seeing this as a conclusion strikingly similar to Muhammed’s take on Jesus; “just another prophet?”
4. Dr. Bart’s Methods.
a. “I’m a doctor, trust me.” Bart D. Ehrman wants to spare the reader the tedious work of studying these matters (a worthy goal) and independent thinking (an unworthy goal). He may sincerely believe he’s giving us the benefit of his lifelong search for the “historical Jesus,” but he repeatedly resorts to the equivalent of “just take my word on this.”
Would some statistics or facts help or harm his position? He frequently resorts to generalities “lots, many, most” that could just as easily be oversimplification or exaggeration. Dr. Bart does offer examples of passages that support his views, but he also claims that there are “lots” more of these in the Bible. How about a list? Generalized, exaggerated, inflated statements like these typically betray someone trying to sound more knowledgeable than they really are. (Ooops. Was that ironic? Am I trying to do the same thing to Dr. Bart that he’s done to the reader?)
b. “Eight out of ten doctors of religious studies in liberal universities agree with me.” OK, I am clearly overstating this to make a point. Since when does orthodoxy equal popularity? When a writer appeals to popularity as a basis for authority, reasonable discourse is less possible. Again, it’s the kind of thing you write if you want to sound authoritative without actually supplying evidence.
c. “People who believe in divine inspiration are biased, ignorant, and unsophisticated.” This is implied, not stated, but it’s a mood that clings to the book like cigarette smoke to a bowling shirt.
d. “I can trace my philosophic lineage back to Schweitzer and Bauer and they lived a long time ago.” Albert Schweitzer became a Unitarian and denied the divinity of Jesus Christ. Walter Bauer’s thesis (one that Dr. Ehrman seems to embrace) was that one version of Christianity triumphed over the others and won the title “orthodox” (correct belief). You can – as “historians” often do – blame Constantine for that. The fact the other Christian beliefs existed is, to Dr. Bart, a sure sign that a human process was at work and orthodoxy is just a human invention.
e. “Let me remind you.” There is a sentence that is rephrased but appears often in this book. It is the same assertion made in the subtitle; the Bible is just not trustworthy. It is the same old “full of errors and contradictions” stuff that people spout just because they’ve heard it from somebody in authority. That kind of repetition is pedantic, propagandistic.
5. Where I agree.
a. If you define “historian” as a guy like Dr. Bart, then I agree with his contention that such people are unqualified to judge the supernaturality of anything. However, he uses that as a point for rejecting anything of the divine, so I guess he thinks maybe he is qualified after all. I suspect it is a rhetorical device for avoiding discussion of anything he doesn’t want to discuss.
b. When someone claims as a statement of faith that the Bible is “inspired in its original autographs (first copies),” that is a cop-out. We simply do not have the original documents. It’s not a great leap of faith to say, “We believe God inspired the original authors, but these copyists we’re not too sure about.” Make a statement about the Bible in your hands or say nothing at all.
c. Bible interpreters DO need to do more of what Dr. Bart calls “horizontal reading,” making comparisons in biblical passages. “Vertical reading” is very much akin to cherry-picking and taking quotes out of context. Every Bible study and sermon needs to examine the text in literary, cultural, and historical contexts. More horizontal reading will lead to less error and be less prone to eisegesis (interpreting from preconceptions first).
d. There are things in the Bible that require, at least, some mental gymnastics to fit together and fit in a systematic theology. The Bible itself seems to offer resistance to making easy generalizations. Exceptions and challenging passages are numerous. However, in my experience, they rarely – if ever – amount to much. For example, how did Judas die? Who cares? I have struggled to harmonize the Gospel accounts of the Resurrection. It can be done. Is it important? Not really.
e. Introducing us to some of the books that did NOT make the canon (were not included in our Bible), Dr. Bart supplies good reasons for their NOT being included, though he does not say that. Some of the stuff in this non-canonical works is just goofy.
f. “In traditional Christianity the Bible itself has never been an object of faith.” (p. 225) There is a line that is crossed when knowledge of the Bible becomes the primary or sole means of salvation. It is a line drawn by the beholder, but it’s there just the same. The object of our faith is Christ; the Bible is one means Christ has been revealed to us. I try to refrain from “bibliolatry” as I call it. If this is Dr. Ehrman’s point, then I agree.
6. Where I disagree.
a. Despite his claims to the contrary, Dr. Bart does want to persuade the reader to adopt his opinion. Generously, he allows you to make up your own mind how you apply it to life or faith. That does not change the fact that his aim is to create a new orthodoxy and is trying to make it as appealing to a mass audience as possible. (After all, who wants to be “unsophisticated” or “unscientific?”)
b. Proving that people had something to do with the Bible does not prove its unreliability as a written revelation of God. It proves that historically, people were involved. Dr. Bart won’t even speculate that God might’ve been providentially involved in a process that can be historically described.
c. Dr. Bart has exercised his imagination in providing an alternative and thoroughly secular view to the development of the Bible and Christianity. Take the same set of facts and look at them from a theological viewpoint and other explanations arise.
d. When is Dr. Bart going to apply his critical expertise to the Quran or the Bhagavad Gita? When are other sacred writing exposed to this withering scrutiny? How would this kind of prickly expose be received by Muslims or Hindus?
e. What you won’t find Dr. Bart discussing are the facts that the Bible was penned by nearly 40 authors over a period of 1600 years. It would be a statistical impossibility to achieve the internal integrity shown by the Bible. You won’t find the same level of consistency in the Quran, Book of Mormon, or the Bhagavad Gita, though they are all reputedly written by a single person.
f. If 90% of the Bible (as a completely arbitrary figure, giving Dr. Bart too much credit) is self-consistent and 10% is not, it does not make sense to write a whole book about the 10% and claim it discredits 100% of the book.
g. I don’t accept Dr. Bart’s viewpoint as solely conclusive. I don’t trust him and view his generalizations, simplifications, and exaggerations with suspicions. Indeed, our modern predilection toward viewing the scientific method as being THE test of truth is self-serving.
h. Portions of the Bible identify itself as inspired. For example, Peter viewed Paul’s writings as Scripture (see 2 Peter 3:15-16). Dr. Bart speculates that Paul did not write his letters thinking of them as Scripture because he nowhere asserted such a claim. That’s merely an argument from silence. If historians find God inaccessible, what makes him think he can access Paul’s mind? I would think a disciplined historian would not make unproveable assertions.
i. People who want to find fault always do. If Christianity had emerged whole cloth and Scripture was easy to harmonize, then people like Dr. Bart would still cry foul. Imagine four people on the corners of an intersection. Their accounts of a traffic accident occurring in their midst would not agree in all the details and significant differences may occur. Does that make the witnesses liars? Could not the explanation of the accident that accounts for the greater portion of the witness accounts be assumed to be an accurate portrayal of the accident? Look at all the commentary on JFK’s assassination. Is there no way to evaluate all that evidence, mitigating biases, to come up with a rational explanation?
He cries foul because, given some factoids and imagination, he can trace the development of the Bible and Christianity as a merely human set of actions (a conspiracy?). The presence of what I call “human fingerprints” and a historical paper trail do not disprove the role of the supernatural in what we call orthodoxy today. This is political correctness and modernity masquerading as scholarship.
j. Textual criticism and historical criticism are not methods of study that inevitably lead to Dr. Bart’s conclusions. That’s called bias, Dr. Bart, and that’s the charge you lay at the feet of the church fathers.
k. It’s counter-intuitive to contend, as Dr. Bart does, that a theology was formed and then sacred writings were cooked up to justify them. A simpler explanation is that the theology was received by writings that were later regarded as sacred. Whether the canonizing councils always did right and for the right reasons merely proves their humanity, not their inaccuracy.
l. “Amazingly, virtually every time a new document is found, it is ‘heretical’ rather than ‘proto-orthodox.” (p. 215) Please don’t be distracted by the jargon; Dr. Ehrman’s point is that archaeology typically disproves the Bible. Here’s another of those generalizations I told you about. Dr. Bart wants us to take his word on this. Here’s why; the movement of historical criticism of the Bible predates the establishment of the science of archaeology. Germans like Schweitzer and Bauer were skeptical of the historicity of the Bible because, in part, there was so little evidence to examine. But then people started digging stuff up. Archaeology was born. For example, no contemporary records for the existence of Pontius Pilate had been found and skeptics famously insisted the Bible was wrong on that point. Then a monument was unearthed bearing his name. Ooops. Did any of those “experts” recant?
I will commit the same kind of gross generalization Dr. Bart does and say my perception is that the findings of these digs consistently uphold the Bible as an authentic statement of ancient history. I wonder if there is any reliable statistical data to support either of us? What Dr. Bart perceives is no doubt the bias of the people he’s read. Me too, probably.
Throw out the whole point. What difference does it make if historical evidence can be found? The very nature of faith is that it operates independently of secular and physical evidence. Who agreed that reason and/or the human brain and senses should be exalted as the final authority? That kind of idolatry serves the skeptics, so they insist on it. Phooey.
m. Dr. Bart is fairly transparent in writing that for him personally, the sticky wicket of Christianity is not claims of divine inspiration of the Bible, but the problem of suffering. The existence of evil and suffering is a deal breaker.
I find this disappointing because it is a superficial complaint, even an excuse too-frequently offered. Some people can’t (or won’t) reconcile the existence of evil and suffering with a god who is perfect in love or power. Because bad things happen, god must either be imperfect or the whole thing is an exercise in wishful thinking. This is the objection that grounded the faith of Charles Templeton, a close friend of the late Rev. Billy Graham. In the 1940s, Templeton and Graham were in a kind of competition to establish ministries as mass evangelists. It wasn’t so much that Graham won the race as Templeton chose to drop out. He witnessed atrocious suffering and lost his faith, becoming a notorious atheist. Obviously, Billy Graham kept faithful to his faith and went on to impart it to countless others. (This is merely an example. I do not offer it as a proof of anything.)
There are many things that can be offered in answer to this problem. As many of them are derived from the Bible, one wonders if Dr. Bart would receive them at all. There is not space enough to address this issue here, so instead I encourage to read his Bible and to reason it out as well. Quite simply, there is evil in the world and it creates suffering in its wake. God allows suffering as a worldly outcome of free will and utilizes it, redeeming it, as a means of refining our faith. An image of god that is only pleasant is another exercise of imagination and a “straw doggie” set up because it is easy to knock down; another rhetorical trick.