I’m breezing my way through Dr. Bart Ehrman’s lectures on the News Testament through the learning company and have hit the mid-way point. Here’s what I think so far.
First the mundane: Ehrman is a scholar and a teacher . . . he is most definitely not a comedian.
Imagine you’re watching a baseball game. Randy Johnson is hurling fast balls past the batters at a blistering 95 MPH. And then, as if in an instant, Johnson turns into a squirrelly little 13-year-old little league pitcher who laboriously toes at the dirt, carefully sets his foot in position, initiates an ungainly wind-up, and then lobs a wobbling dud of a pitch that lands with a thud right in front of home plate. After that unreal moment, Johnson quickly returns to the mound.
That’s what Ehrman’s attempts at comedy feel like: long, drawn out, and painful, oh so painful. Perhaps someone like Garrison Keeler could give him some pointers, but until then, drop the jokes please. You’re killing me!
As to Dr. Ehrman’s actual content, I have mixed reviews.
On one hand he’s approaching the Bible as a historian, so he’s trying to find reliable historical information. This means that he sicks upon any contradictions or inconsistencies in the New Testament. So far he’s been pretty rough on the Gospels and the book of Acts. He still sees value in them, but he casts a dark shadow over their historical accuracy.
On the plus side, I felt he did a very good job of literary analysis. He talked about the themes in each book and how each author portrays Jesus. That is helpful for anyone because it shows the Bible isn’t just some strange book about God, miracles, demons, lepers, and commandments. The books of the NT are ancient literary treasures that artfully tell the story of Jesus and the early church.
Of course I would no stop there. Ehrman strikes me as a bit jaded and frustrated toward conservative scholarship. He apparently had enough of that at Wheaton. So when he encounters problems in the Bible, he seems to really hammer the point that discrepancies cannot be reconciled.
And I’ll give him this to a certain extent. Yes, there are times when the Gospel authors clearly are moving things around to make a theological point. John has Jesus clearing the temple at the beginning of his ministry, while elsewhere it occurs before his death. I don’t see that as a blow to the accuracy or trustworthiness of the Bible, it’s just a different way of telling the story. The writers are not making things up, they’re just rearranging things.
Nevertheless, Ehrman starts to beat the old “we need to sift through the Gospels in order to find the historical Jesus” drum. Gag! And so he goes through all of the steps necessary to evaluate the accuracy of various passages of scripture. According to Ehrman, the Gospel writers had an agenda and they left us unreliable accounts of Jesus because they wanted to make certain points about Jesus. This is where I think he misses out.
The Gospels are full of things that I don’t think anyone would make up. Let’s face it: the disciples look bad, really bad in the Gospels. Jesus is puzzling as all get out, and there are plenty of stories that fly in the face of the conventional wisdom of the times. If you wanted to start a religious movement on the miniscule momentum of an obscure prophet who was executed as a criminal, then Christianity is a primer on how NOT to do it.
Of course the NT writers tell their stories with different audiences in mind, different arrangements of the facts, and even slightly different versions of the same stories and sermons. Historians today can probably have a field day picking around for inconsistencies among the Gospels that may or may or may not be there. But I can’t imagine anyone going through so much trouble to record narratives about Jesus that are mere embellishment when Jews, Romans, and Greeks are all hostile.
Christians have to just settle for the Gospels that we have and take their messages on faith. We cannot prove the true reliablility of the New Testament any more than scholars can uncover the true “historical Jesus.”
We should also keep in mind that Jesus never wrote a book. He only created a community of followers. For some reason he thought they would be enough to convey his good news to future generations. Maybe they didn’t tell it the way we would, but they certainly didn’t make parts of it up. What first century Jew would make up something like the Gospels?