Ehrman, the Bible, and authority

March 28, 2011

I’m sure Bart Ehrman is an accomplished New Testament scholar, but as he surely knows by now, writing for a mass audience that knows little about the Bible pays much better. A few years ago, he became an honorary New Atheist, known to many as that New Testament scholar who has studied the stuff and knows it’s all bunk. I heard Christopher Hitchens say something to that effect on more than one occasion. Ehrman writes books dealing with issues in Bible criticism that any first-year seminarian knows about, but packages them as if he’s discovered something new and shocking. His tone is if only people knew the truth, then they wouldn’t bother being Christian.

This time, he’s taking on those letters in the New Testament whose authorship is in dispute. He writes, for example,

Whoever wrote the New Testament book of 2 Peter claimed to be Peter. But scholars everywhere — 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… Scholars may also tell you that it was an acceptable practice in the ancient world for someone to write a book in the name of someone else. But that is where they are wrong.

From Ehrman’s point of view, if one of Paul’s companions or students wrote the so-called disputed letters of Paul (which are: 2 Thessalonians, Ephesians, Colossians, 1 and 2 Timothy, and Titus) in Paul’s name, they were not simply honoring their friend and carrying forward Pauline ideas in a way that Paul himself would endorse or authorize, they were instead a bunch of lying liars. 

The extent to which writing in someone else’s name in antiquity was considered an ethically kosher practice, I can’t say. But it happened a great deal, and I doubt that in many cases it was simply done to deceive readers. To what end would they do this? Well, Ehrman suggests one nefarious end in the following passage:

In his book, the author of 1 Timothy used Paul’s name and authority to address a problem that he saw in the church. Women were speaking out, exercising authority and teaching men. That had to stop.

Here we go again—that early church conspiracy to put the uppity women back in their place. Needless to say, Ehrman’s exegesis of 1 Timothy 2:11-15 is about as nuanced as a sledgehammer, as surely he knows. If he were writing for a scholarly audience, he would would have to work much harder to make such bold pronouncements, because actual scholars would call him on his B.S. You don’t have to worry about nuance and niceties of language and social-scientific context when you’re appealing to the same audience that takes Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code as gospel truth.

Again I ask: To what end would these authors be writing in someone else’s name? No one was writing 2 Peter in order to be included in Volume 2 of this soon-to-be bestselling book called The Holy Bible. They weren’t getting royalties. They couldn’t have imagined that their letters would be so widely read one day.

Besides, writing in someone else’s name happens today in plenty of different ways that fail to raise any ethical alarms. Was President Kennedy lying when he said, “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country”? He didn’t write those words, after all, yet he pretended that he did. If you asked anyone around the Kennedy administration at the time, they would have told you that he wrote them. (Speechwriters today are far less modest. They can’t wait to take credit for a favorite line in a president’s speech, almost before he’s finished delivering it!)

I wouldn’t pick up a company’s annual report, read the CEO’s letter to investors, and think, “That Steve Jobs is a really great writer,” because I seriously doubt that Steve Jobs wrote it. For that matter, Franklin W. Dixon didn’t write the Hardy Boys books I grew up reading, but whether or not these books had value is hardly dependent upon that fact.

I certainly don’t believe, contrary to Ehrman’s assertion, that my New Testament professor at the mainline Protestant seminary I attended was trying to protect our tender sensibilities when he talked about these issues of authorship. This professor accepted the scholarly consensus regarding the authorship of the disputed letters, but this professor was, unlike Ehrman, a believer.1

In fact, why is it that so many Bible scholars and theologians who know as much as or more than Ehrman about questions of authorship continue to be believers? Are they simply self-deluded? Do they need Ehrman to show them the light?

Oh, brother.

Ehrman wants to say, If the author was “lying” about his identity, then his book contains a bunch of lies, too. This is obviously ridiculous. Most Christians are not unsophisticated fundamentalists who believe that the writers of the Bible were taking dictation from the Holy Spirit. We spend our lives being shaped by these words, and the extent to which we believers find value in 2 Timothy or 2 Peter doesn’t depend on whether Paul or Peter wrote them.

Ehrman, by his own admission, grew up as a fundamentalist and an inerrantist. I’m sure he has scars to prove it. But his rejection of the Bible’s authority still seems to be in terms of inerrancy: that every jot and tittle of every book must be internally consistent and historically and scientifically reliable without contradiction or error, or else you can throw the whole thing out. Inerrancy, as I’ve said elsewhere, is a strictly modern way of viewing scripture. For most of the church throughout the past two millennia who were not formed in that tradition, we rightly wonder why he’s making such a fuss.

1. Ehrman presents the question of disputed authorship like it’s a settled question. It’s not! Nothing is settled in the world of scholarship. Another New Testament prof at Candler, Luke Timothy Johnson, accepts the disputed letters as authentically Pauline. Does Ehrman think Johnson is some kind of raving fundamentalist? Johnson could more than hold his own in a debate with Ehrman, I’m sure of that.

2 Responses to “Ehrman, the Bible, and authority”

  1. Craig Says:

    Hey Brent. Here’s my take. I don’t think Ehrman writes for an audience of scholars–he teaches many introductory course as UNC-Chapel Hill for starters.

    In addition, the majority of the population have never been nor will be a “first year seminarian”. So in the case of the vast majority of those reading this type of material for the first time, he IS presenting something new and shocking.

    However, as you pointed out, this is not new material to those of you on the inside, so can we therefore state that much of what he presents is valid? (sans the accusations that these allonymous writers were lying for whatever reason?) If that is the case, then it should be incumbent upon the believer to be educated on the book he clings to so fervently and perhaps even peel away a reticence to question. A reticence, I submit, that has likely been perpetuated by decades and perhaps even centuries of prevarications and fear mongering from the pulpits.

    Finally, the last I heard, Ehrman was not one of the New Atheist like Hitchens, or Harris, but still considered himself Agnostic.

    • brentwhite Says:

      So was I giving Ehrman too much credit when I wrote that he was an “accomplished scholar”? Is he only a mediocre scholar, in which case I should let him off the hook for oversimplifying and dumbing down complex issues? He ought to know that most of his interpretations of the facts are highly disputed within the realm of scholarship. In other words, there are multiple sides to everything he writes about—with nuances and shadings in between. But he would lose his audience if he actually had to explain all that.

      As for prevarications and fear mongering, I don’t know… When human beings are involved in anything, they tend to disappoint, but I don’t think it’s bad as you say. We’re mostly all doing the best we can. You speak of my being “on the inside.” I don’t like that language. I’m kind of an open book here. I have this blog, after all, in which I talk about these things. I lead Bible studies in which we discuss issues of authority and authorship frequently. Any decent commentary set or study Bible (New Interpreters, for example) would talk about these issues.

      Scripture is the word of God, in a figurative sense, inasmuch as it bears witness to the Word, who is literally Jesus. Christ himself is God’s perfect revelation, not the Bible (even in its original autographs). The Holy Spirit enables us to meet Jesus through the words of scripture—therefore reading it, or hearing it proclaimed, is a means of grace. Its authority resides in the God who speaks through it, not in the words on paper. That’s what our Methodist tradition emphasizes, and I believe it represents a broad historical consensus of Christian thinking on the subject. Inerrancy, against which Ehrman seems to be railing, is a modern (19th century) response to the challenges of the Enlightenment—well-intentioned but badly flawed. We don’t worship the Bible.

      No, Ehrman is not a New Atheist. I called him an “honorary” New Atheist. His book about how he couldn’t believe in God in the face of suffering came out shortly after the New Atheists were making a splash, and at least one of them cited Ehrman in an effort to make his case against God.

      A while back, I linked to an online debate on his theodicy book between a scholar I greatly admire (N.T. Wright) and him. It was on Beliefnet, but I see that they’ve taken it down now.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s