Misquoting Scholarship: Bart Ehrman’s Quest to Undermine Christian Faith

Posted: February 20, 2013 by boydmonster in Apologetics, Apologetics and Evangelism

I ran into an old friend from my college days at a conference several years ago.  When I asked him how his new campus ministry was going, this was his response.  “Iain, pray for us.  We’re dealing with a real enemy of the Gospel on our campus.”  Who was he talking about?  He was talking about Bart Ehrman, the distinguished professor of religion at UNC Chapel Hill.  At the time I thought, “is it really fair to call an academic honestly teaching what he believes to be true an enemy of the Gospel?”  However, after reading up on it a bit more over the years, I’m not so sure Ehrman is simply an academic honestly putting forth his views.  Rather, as I read Ehrman I experience someone with a very strongly held agenda who puts that agenda forth as if it were the only possible conclusion a rational human being could make.  Ehrman consistently concludes that orthodox Christianity is an invention of the later church.  However, in putting this view forth, Ehrman is habitually misleading in his depiction of the scholarly world.

In many of his books, Jesus Interrupted, Misquoting Jesus, etc, Ehrman makes many claims that undermine the historical understanding of Christianity.  He claims that the bible is fraught with contradictions that destroy its credibility for any type of orthodox Christian faith.  According to Ehrman, the doctrine of Jesus divinity was created by the later church, but is absent from Matthew, Mark, and Luke’s Gospel accounts.  He asserts that the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ crucifixion are woefully irreconcilable, such that all we can really be certain of is that Jesus was crucified.  He holds forth the idea that New Testament authors were liars masquerading as apostolic writers.  Morover, Ehrman claims that there are dozens of other texts that never made it into the corpus of Scripture, because they didn’t pass one party’s view of early Christianity.  Rather, according to Bart, early Christianity held to an irreconcilable diversity in its claims about who Jesus was.  Of great certainty, according to Bart, is that neither Jesus nor his first followers claimed that he was divine, but rather this doctrine was invented by the church a generation after anyone had ever heard the voice of Jesus of Nazareth in person.  More than that, Ehrman makes the assertion that all real biblical scholars have known all of this for some time.

Ehrman’s views, of course, are fairly commonly held today by scholars and lay people alike.  Furthermore, many of the issues Ehrman takes up in the New Testament need to be dealt with, rather than being simply brushed away as many believers do.  However, Ehrman habitually talks about these issues as if his position is the only conclusion intellectually honest and rational people can come to.

For example, Ehrman calls the authors of the New Testament ‘liars.’  According to Ehrman, “Most scholars will tell you that whereas seven of the 13 letters that go under Paul’s name are his, the other six are not. Their authors merely claimed to be Paul.”  These writings are called pseudipigraphic, a term that Ehrman defines as “writing that is inscribed with a lie.”

At it’s best these claims are mere sensationalism.  As Ehrman well knows, the term pseudipigrapha refers to texts that are attributed to an author who didn’t actually write them.  For example, the most ancient documents of the book of Hebrews have no signature.  Older manuscripts attribute the work to Paul.  As Ehrman well knows, pseudipigraphic writing was common in the ancient world.  Authors often attributed their works to famous people to lend credence to their message.  Ehrman claims, however, that the motivation for these pseudipgiraphic writers was to deceive their audience.  (Ironically, this is indisputably the case for many of those works Ehrman claims were unfairly excluded from the New Testament Canon such as the Gospel of Thomas, The Acts of Peter, etc.).

Moreover, Ehrman’s claim that “most scholars” reject six of Paul’s thirteen letters is misleading.  It would be more accurate to say that there are six Pauline letters whose authenticity is questioned in the scholarly community.  This does not mean that most scholars question each of those six.  For example, the scholarly community is fairly equally divided over whether 2 Thessalonians is genuine or not.  In every case, there are well-respected scholars who uphold the authenticity of each of the Pauline Epistles.  The picture that Ehrman paints of a unified scholarly consensus is overly simplistic to the point of being disingenuous.

You see, it is not necessarily Ehrman’s claim that is misleading, but how he articulates it.  From reading Ehrman, you get the picture that only the most knuckle dragging of Neanderthals could possibly disagree with him.  “But scholars everywhere,” he writes, “except for our friends among the fundamentalists — will tell you that there is no way on God’s green earth that Peter wrote the book.”[1]  Elsewhere, he says, “Apart from the most rabid fundamentalists among us, nearly everyone admits that the Bible might contain errors.”(emphasis added)  What Ehrman fails to acknowledge in these ad hominem attacks is the amount of credible scholarship there is that disagrees with his own radical views.  In fact, Ehrman is a distinct minority in his own academic field of textual criticism, the study that seeks to recreate original ancient documents based on the surviving documents.  The vast majority of textual critics do not uphold Ehrman’s conspiracy theories that the New Testament was fabricated by the early church, but rather tend to acknowledge the overwhelming evidence in favor of the New Testament’s veracity.(For example, see Ehrman’s own mentor, Bruce Metzger.)

Is Ehrman, then, “an enemy of the Gospel?”  I don’t know.  What does seem clear is that Ehrman has an agenda to undermine biblical faith that he feels passionate enough about not to present the full story for critical minds to examine.  This agenda pops its head up consistently in his popular writings, teaching, and speaking engagements.  Of course, orthodox believers who uphold the truth of the Scriptures aren’t completely innocent of the same faults.  We often present only those facts that uphold our side of the story.  In more extreme camps of fundamentalism, the valid issues Ehrman brings up are dismissed as fringe elements rather than being respectfully discussed and debated.  The irony is that in his efforts to combat fundamentalism, Ehrman uses the exact same tactics dismissing valid scholarship that questions his own position.

For further reading, Ben Witherington has provided a more scholarly review of one of Ehrman’s books here.

[1] Of course, the questions surrounding Petrine authorship of 2 Peter are much more universal than with the questioned Pauline letters.  However, what Ehrman doesn’t relate is that the first epistle bearing Peter’s name itself contains the signature of the scribe Silvanus, leading some scholars to conclude that Peter dictated the letter to an amanuensis.

  1. Pat Merrell says:

    That was interesting Iain. You have put into words several thoughts i had when I listened to his last book. My thoughts at the time were that he really did not bring up anything that has not been commonly known to be disputed for a long time. Some things we are never going to know for sure and the others i suspect we will not care about when we leave this earth.

    He needs to sell books for a living and the topic as well as his treatment of it will always whet our curiosity. How much does it matter who wrote Hebrews? Would a movement arise among the faithful to remove it from the current cannon of our scripture? Now that I think about it, maybe we should take out all of the disputed Pauline books, remove their influnces on our doctrine and concentrate more on the teachings of Christ. It might be interesting to see how many scriptural disagreements would go away if we did that.

  2. Charlie Jordan says:

    Pat –

    The problem with tinkering with the canon of Scripture is that eventually you will have no books left. For you see, even if you leave in those books which Ehrman accepts as written by Paul, you still have the issue of Paul’s authority and reliability. He never met Jesus except, as Ehrman will say, in some kind of personal mystical experience which may have been due to physical causes. Think of how many time Paul actually quotes the teachings of the pre-crucifixion Jesus – I doubt that we could come up with more than two examples (Acts 20:35 – Luke quoting Paul quoting Jesus, and ?) And going back to the teachings of Jesus, Ehrman will say that we will never know what Jesus actually said, and what the gospel writers, whose identies are themselves unknown, said he said. Luke says “Blessed are the poor”, Matthew says “Blessed are the poor in spirit” – so is Jesus fiscal or spiritual? And if we can try to get behind the actual teachings of Jesus, Ehrman will say that Jesus never claimed to be God or anything other than a prophet who may have had a special relationship with God (like David who was also called the Son of God, or Ezekial who was also called the Son of Man). At best the NT are the words of a dead prophet. I have been down that road, and eventually you will doubt everything and your faith will become like a withered fig tree bearing no fruit. And if you read anything about the early Church, such as Eusebius’ “Ecclesiastical History,” many of these issues were debated then as well, so this isn’t something new under the sun.

    In my personal opinion, the (only) cure for scriptural disagreements and Ehrman himself is the acceptance of the catholic (not Roman Catholic) faith which is found in the Creeds, the Patristics, the prayers, and the liturgy of the Church. When Scripture is read in light of the faith once delivered, (lex orandi, lex credendi), most disagreements fade away. And, if Scripture is viewed as the first depository of such Tradition, then it doesn’t really matter if the Apostle Peter actually wrote 2 Peter or Paul actually wrote Titus for it was the Church, the men who actually heard Jesus and the Apostles first hand, who determined that the teachings contained in those books reflected the teachings of Christ and his Apostles – which is how Hebrews made the cut and the Gospel of Peter did not.

    As an antidote to Ehrman, listen to Luke Timothy Johnson’s lectures on the Pauline Epistles. I think Colin still has my copy. Johnson would never be confused as an ESV-toting evangelical of KJV fundamentalist. He takes the same critical methods used by Ehrman and, in my opinion, establishes a logical, cogent, and rational basis for Pauline authorship of all the canonical books attributed to him.

    Pax Christi

  3. boydmonster says:

    Charlie, thanks for the comments. Those were helpful. I would add to your comments on tradition and say that we need to look at the same criterium that the early fathers weighed those books claiming to be scripture, namely apostolicity. I don’t think that the main concern was necessarily that the books were written by apostles (otherwise Luke would definitely be excluded and maybe James and Jude as well). Rather, they were weighing whether the doctrine was consistent with the apostolic witness they had known. John, and Matthew’s Gospels were considered apostolic in their authorship. Mark and Luke’s Gospels and Acts were considered apostolic because of the authors’ connection with Paul and Peter. By extension, Paul’s authority came both from his apostolic calling from God and his approval by the other apostles (as recounted in Galatians). While it might not be earth shattering to find out Titus or 2 Peter weren’t written by Paul and Peter as it would be to find out that Jesus hadn’t been raised from the dead, the important thing would still be the apostolic connection.
    Needless to say, I agree that listening to the voices of faithful Christians through the ages, and particularly those in the early church is helpful, I struggle a bit with giving tradition such strong authority because of the diversity of some of the early post-apostolic teaching. That’s not to deny the helpfulness of tradition, it’s just not where I hang my hat. Rather, I’ve found the inner cogency of scripture to be much more compelling to me personally. So, if we were to try to only focus on what Jesus said, we’d find it impossible as Jesus testified to both the authority and needfulness of the Old Testament Scriptures (“I’ve not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it,” “you search the scriptures because you think that in them you have life, but these same scriptures testify to me,” etc) as well as the need for further development of God’s revelation (“I have much to tell you that you can not now bear”). Furthermore, while the Gospel’s tell us the story of Jesus’ coming, we still need the epistles to explain the significance of that coming.
    Finally, while I understand why you would point out that LTJ is not a card carrying evangelical or fundamentalist, I do think it’s important that we don’t fall into the trap that the secular academic world has fallen into. There is an implicit (and sometimes explicit) conversation that seems to happen where someone like Ehrman challenges some scriptural truth, and when an evangelical scholar is pointed out, Ehrman can simply dismiss him because he’s evangelical. It’s no wonder that the scholarly world veers away from evangelical conclusions when evangelicals are excluded from the discussion not on the basis of their merits, but rather on their identity as evangelical. I know that’s not your point, but it is a constant frustration I have that scholarly evangelicals with good arguments are often ignored simply because they are evangelical. The reality is that most of the people in Ehrman’s field (which is textual criticism, not history or exegesis, the fields he writes the most number of popular books in) are evangelical. Could this be because scholarly study of the ancient manuscripts of the New Testament actually affirms an evangelical committment to the Scriptures? That’s an issue for another day.

  4. boydmonster says:

    Pat, thanks for your thoughts. My point is not necessarily to say that we can’t come to any conclusions about some of the authorship here. Rather, what I was trying to say is that Ehrman does not give due credit to the strong arguments of his opponents. In my opinion, many of the conclusions of the liberal academic world are deeply flawed. For example, Ephesians is considered inauthentic because it relies so heavily on Colosians, which is considered inauthentic because it doesn’t reflect any of Paul’s other writings. But this is a circular argument, because you have to assume that Ephesians is inauthentic and only looks similar to Colossians because the author is just copying Paul in order to make the case that Colossians doesn’t look like any other Pauline letters! I distinctly remember my New Testament professor in seminary when talking about the authorship of John’s Gospel saying “Of course, none of these arguments is very strong, but when you have a lot of weak arguments you have a strong case.” Nowhere else in the world does that kind of logic hold up. In my view, I have not found any compelling argument against including Pauline writings in the corpus of Scripture. Furthermore, if we were to take Paul’s writings, consider what we would lose. “God made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us that in Him, we might become the righteousness of God,” “But God shows his love for us in this, that while we were sinners, Christ died for us,” “I have been crucified with Christ and I know longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave Himself for me,” “Where sin abounded, grace abounded all the more,” “Have this mind among yourselves which is yours in Christ Jesus, who though He was in the form of God, didn’t count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but humbled Himself taking the form of a servant. And being found in human form, he became obedient to the point of death, even death on the cross,” “This is a true saying and worthy of all men to be received, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” That’s just off the top of my head! The richness of God’s grace in the letters of Paul is often taken for granted, and we would be deeply impoverished to lose them. Whatever theological wranglings we must endure to understand Paul’s letters is, in my view, most definitely worth it. Moreover, we need to ask that if Jesus ever intended for us to simply focus on His own teachings. I cannot think of one word of His that seems to indicate that this was His desire.

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