This post introduces the first book in the philosophy challenge that Deena and I began last year.
Jesus, Interrupted. ISBN: 9780061173936; ISBN10: 0061173932; HarperOne; Pages: 304; [Amazon]
by Bart D. Ehrman
This book presents an overview of some of the discrepancies and contradictions apparent in the New Testament, and what they tell us about the actual history of early Christianity, from Jesus’ life to the eventual formation of the modern Christian canon.
This is not a book claiming to debunk Christianity or religious belief in general. It’s a book of history, aiming to introduce laypeople to the scholarly consensus – a consensus that has failed to reach not only lifelong heathens like me, but also most people who claim to believe in and follow the Bible as a guide to life.
Jesus, Interrupted makes two main points. The more obvious is that, in communicating their religious messages, the books of the New Testament fail to accurately portray the historical events they talk about. The other point is that acknowledging this fact does not require abandoning the Bible as an inspiring collection of texts, a devotional tool, or even the centrepiece to the Christian religion.
This book is no simple irreverent catalogue. If you want to see atheists exclaiming “How can people believe this garbage?” you will need to look elsewhere – for example, the Skeptics Annotated Bible.
Ehrman’s attitude is more scholarly. Drawing on his deep familiarity with the New Testament, he lays out numerous examples where the narrative in one part of the New Testament is inconsistent with the narrative in another part. Sometimes it is just a matter of tone. On the way to being crucified, was Jesus the confident son of God, willingly sacrificing himself as part of a greater plan [Luke 23:26-49] or a bewildered human, silent, feeling abandoned by his god [Mark 15:16-39] (pages 64-69 of JI)? Other times, it is a question of differences that are striking, but can be reconciled with sufficiently creative narrative distortions. Did Jesus cleanse the temple of money-changers and other commerce at the beginning of his ministry [Mark 11:15-19] or at the end [John 2:13-16] (p166 of JI)? Apologists may conclude he did both (see also here) – but Ehrman points out that this is an awkward solution that misses the point of the incident in the context of each individual account. And, often enough, there are flat-out contradictions, where no plausible interpretation can rescue the assertion that all of the canonical books are historically accurate. Compare the account of Judas’ demise in Matthew 27:3-10 with that in Acts 1:18-19 (from page 46 of JI).
Throughout the book, Ehrman is also showing us the historical approach taken by mainline biblical scholars. He slowly builds a picture of how we got these various books in their present form. What did Jesus and his followers probably believe? What happened after his death, and how did the early Christian community evolve in those first few decades?
I will not go in to detail – it would take an entire book to do the material justice. This book, I think.
Ehrman’s arguments are very convincing – particularly those that rely mainly on the text of the New Testament. After all, if the evidence is at your fingertips (in print or online), it is very easy to check, to make sure the author isn’t pulling a fast one. But even the rest of it, drawing on non-canonical gospels and on more detailed scholarly research, builds a picture that seems to hang together very comfortably.
Historicity vs faith
The second key point that Ehrman makes – that the fallibility of the New Testament as history doesn’t have to undermine Christian faith – might seem very secondary indeed. It’s not the main content of the book by word count, and it’s certainly not the bit you expect to agitate conservatives and excite skeptics. But it’s clearly important to him. He mentions it prominently in his opening, and devotes his entire last chapter to it.
He is careful to point out that his own agnosticism is not due to the historical inaccuracy of the Biblical texts.
He has given many presentations of these arguments to a lay audience, and notes that often people – religious people who are honestly interested in learning about this book that’s important to them – ask him afterwards why they’ve never learned this before. Not as a challenge; they are genuinely interested. They want to know more – not because they have begun to doubt their faith, but because understanding their scriptures in more depth is an important part of that faith.
I was surprised how much this second theme of Ehrman’s book affected me. After all, as a “cradle atheist”, I have never had a faith in the New Testament’s historicity that could be threatened by Ehrman’s revelations*. But you see, up to now I’ve only ever encountered the Bible in two contexts: believers arguing for its truth, and skeptics arguing for its falsehood. One side has been singularly unpersuasive; the other has carried the day. End of story. What reason do I have to spend more time reaffirming obvious facts? Oh, some people point to the Bible as inspiring literature in its own right. And I’ve had a little taste of that. But generally, whenever I’ve opened up the Bible, my sense that the authors want me to believe (while never offering good arguments for belief) ruins my ability to enjoy the non-belief-related side of the prose.
Reading Ehrman’s book is the first time I’ve been walked through a genuinely interesting alternative: the Bible as an archaeological artifact. It is a set of very old documents. What can they tell us about the people and times that produced them? Just as I don’t have to embrace or reject the British monarchy to enjoy walking through Edinburgh Castle, I should be able to enjoy reading the Bible for what it is without always thinking about whether or not it is the miraculous word of a god.
I don’t know if I’ll actually do this, mind you. It’s a little outside my preferred genres of literature (science fiction and fantasy, with the occasional bit of philosophy). But thanks to Ehrman, I now have a plausible way to enjoy the Bible, if I do decide to pick it up.
Too good to be true?
Okay, so here’s the caveat. First, Jesus, Interrupted is the first exposure I’ve had to biblical scholarship, and second, Ehrman’s conclusions coincide with my expectations. These are two very good reasons to be careful before accepting his conclusions. He seems to make a lot of sense, and he seems to have done careful work. For the moment, I will tentatively take his assertions as true. But I really would like to see if there is another side to New Testament scholarship, and what it has to say.
Fortunately, just such an opportunity will come up later. One of the essays in Contending with Christianity’s Critics, the volume edited by Paul Copan and William Lane Craig, is titled “How Badly Did the Early Scribes Corrupt the New Testament? An Examination of Bart Ehrman’s Claims” (written by Daniel B. Wallace). I’ll let you know how Ehrman stacks up after reading that.
In the meantime, I’ll just say that Jesus, Interrupted was a delightful book to begin this face-off between Christian and atheist philosophies. I learned some interesting facts, and a liberating approach to this terribly influential book I’ve never read. The fact that it wasn’t, in fact, philosophical in nature didn’t bother me. Its subject matter is clearly relevant to the matters at hand, and may come in handy if any later author tries to stand on the Bible as a reliable historical text. But Christians wouldn’t try that, would they?
* Ehrman does not claim to have personally discovered any of these things about the Bible – most have been long-known by biblical scholars. Which makes it all the more scandalous that the stuff Ehrman is talking about is not more widely known.