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.” 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
 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.