Once again, Dr. Ehrman… So what?

July 22, 2011

Bart Ehrman, an evangelical Christian-turned-atheist, is a popular figure among New Atheists. Not that he shares many of their sympathies. His apostasy was apparently heartfelt and painful. It resulted, he says, from his inability to reconcile the God of Christianity with the reality of evil and suffering in the world. In other words, he’s disappointed that God doesn’t exist. He likes the idea of God and would love to believe in him if only he could.

The New Atheists adore Ehrman because they can use him, even indirectly, to bolster their own lame arguments against God, Christianity, etc. “Maybe we don’t know much about this stuff that we’ve made such a handsome sum of money railing against, but this guy surely does (it’s his life’s work, after all), and he agrees with us that it’s a bunch of baloney!” They’re trading on his credibility.

Not that Ehrman seems to mind very much. Over at the Huffington Post, where he keeps a blog, he presents himself as that fearless New Testament scholar who can afford to speak the truth about the Bible—because, unlike all those Christian Bible scholars, he doesn’t have to actually believe any of it. (I honestly think this is a fair characterization, but tell me if you think I’m wrong.)

Regardless, his latest post is a variation on a recurring theme: “Did you know—especially you Christians—that the New Testament didn’t fall out of the sky on golden plates? That it wasn’t dictated and assembled by God himself? That human beings wrote these books and letters and, over a long period of time, the church discerned what did and did not belong there? Can you believe it?”

Well, yes… So what?

Does Dr. Ehrman know that the four earliest gospels that we know of are the four that we have in our New Testament—all written relatively closely together in time, and completed before the end of the first century? That the apocryphal gospels he refers to came long after these four? That these apocryphal gospels were never even close to becoming a part of the New Testament that we have today?

Of course Ehrman knows all this. But saying so wouldn’t fit his narrative.

Who were “some of Jesus’ followers” who believed in these non-canonical stories? Not the apostles who actually knew Jesus, whose own words were corroborated by other eyewitnesses to the events of Jesus’ life and ministry. Not their successors in the early church, who read and ultimately agreed that the four canonical gospels are the only ones that belong in the Bible.

I’m sure that some of Jesus’ followers, then as now, believed all sorts of crazy or wrongheaded things about Jesus. Again, so what? This is in part why Christ gave us the church, guided by the Holy Spirit, to help us sort these things out.

Either we believe that God guided the process that gave us our New Testament or we don’t. But if we do, then there’s nothing in Ehrman’s words to shock or surprise us.

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