I’ve recently read Bart Ehrman’s Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (and Why We Don’t Know About Them). I know that Ehrman gets a lot of mixed reviews. Conservatives don’t like him because he attacks their beliefs. Academics don’t take him as seriously now that he focuses more on writing popular bestselling books for a general audience. But I always admire scholars who take the time to make scholarship accessible to a wider audience (I’m especially fond of Marcus Borg, John Dominic Crossan, and John Shelby Spong in this regard). If Ehrman provides a service for the wider population of Bible readers, I’m not going to fault him for selling a bunch of popular books rather than focusing on detailed scholarship that only a handful of his peers will ever read.
Ehrman repeatedly points out that this book is not for scholars. It’s not even for (mainline) pastors, because its contents should not be news to those trained in mainline seminaries and divinity schools. Instead, this book is for general Bible readers and church goers. Throughout the book, Ehrman claims (accurately) that pastors are not doing a good job conveying critical Bible scholarship to the people in their pews.
Here is the basic summary of what he “reveals” in this book:
- There are discrepancies among the various books of the Bible. These discrepancies involve narrative, historical, and theological differences and contradictions. In other words, the Bible is not a unity but rather a very diverse collection of texts and theologies.
- Many biblical books were not written by the people attributed as or claimed as authors. Many books are anonymous and several are pseudepigraphical. Ehrman goes so far as to call these pseudepigraphies forgeries and dismisses pious attempts to spin this in other ways.
- There is a gap between the historical Jesus and the character depicted in the gospels and other New Testament writings. These writings represent various stages in the evolution of beliefs about Jesus.
- Other writings about Jesus existed in antiquity and were considered legitimate and faithful by the communities that produced them. The line between “orthodoxy” and “heresy” was determined by the community that prevailed after centuries of debate. The canon of scripture that has survived reflects their understanding of Christianity.
- Many central Christian doctrines—like the suffering of the messiah, the divinity of Christ, the Trinity, and understandings of heaven and hell—developed after Jesus and the writings of the New Testament.
- All of this points to the realization that the development of Christianity can be described and understood in very human terms. Without necessarily dismissing the possibility of divine guidance, Ehrman talks about Christianity as a human invention. From a purely historical and sociological perspective, this is hard to argue with. (But that doesn’t mean God is necessarily absent from the process.)
Throughout the book Ehrman notes that this represents the consensus view of scholars that teach in mainline seminaries and divinity schools. While conservative scholars and pastors will disagree, because their seminaries do in fact teach a different approach, Ehrman is right. While my teachers would argue with him on various points and particulars, this does in fact represent the kind of historical criticism I was taught in college and seminary.
And, I think Ehrman is right that mainline pastors are doing a bad job passing these concepts on to their parishioners. After seminary, many pastors do indeed revert to what Ehrman calls a “devotional” approach to reading and teaching the Bible. To this observation I would add that the selectivity of lectionary preaching (and the lack of much congregational Bible study beyond worship) results in troubling or contradictory passages simply being ignored in favor of a “canon within the canon” that is palatable to mainline sensibilities (even though this is precisely what the lectionary attempts to avoid).
Ehrman repeatedly says that this historical critical approach to the Bible need not destroy faith—his own agnosticism is the result of reflection on theodicy, not historical criticism. On this point, Ehrman is also right. There is a faithful segment of the Christian population that adopts this approach to the Bible and Christian history yet maintains vibrant and active expressions of Christianity. To be sure, there is still much to work out in this kind of Christianity, but it is anything but empty or faithless.
I also agree with Ehrman’s suggestion that there is theological value to historical criticism. This was the essence of my senior ministry project in seminary and much of my pastoral and theological work since seminary. We must incorporate this understanding of the Bible and Christianity into our contemporary constructive theology. It is irresponsible to apply biblical concepts to today’s world without considering the contexts of both. Further, how do we make constructive use of the pluralism of theologies in the Bible?
For pastors and scholars, this book is old news. For people in the pews, this is a great introduction to the main contours of historical criticism.
There is a sense in which this book is a challenge to pastors to do a better job of handling and passing on this information. But in this respect, it is clear that Ehrman is a scholar and not a pastor. There are several issues he doesn’t sufficiently cover. Here are a few of the most pertinent:
- How should pastors be spreading this knowledge in their churches? At one point he seems to suggest that this isn’t necessarily the function of preaching and that education classes are a more appropriate venue. I don’t agree with this. It needs to happen in both places, especially because the vast majority of people in mainline churches are only going to hear the Bible discussed in worship. Why not approach preaching from a thoroughly historical critical position? To be sure, there are those of us that do just this, but not enough.
- What does the plurality of the Bible and early Christianity say about our plurality today? In other words, this should not just be a historical observation but data for theological and pastoral thinking today.
- How do we argue against or reject parts of the Bible and Christian tradition with pastoral and theological integrity?
- Why should the Bible remain central and authoritative (however we understand this) for Christianity? Ehrman provides an answer for why we should study it: the Bible is the most influential writing of western civilization. But what is the theological argument for keeping this very human collection of documents at the center of our communities of faith?
- At what point in one’s faith development do we introduce these ideas? From the very beginning of Sunday school? At confirmation? As adults? This is an issue that folks like Ehrman, Borg, Crossan, and Spong have not addressed (to my knowledge). I’ve hinted at it before, and I’ll do it again here: I have some ideas on this that will soon be fleshed out.
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