Posts Tagged ‘Bart Ehrman’

The angel at the empty tomb doesn’t say, “Take my word for it”

April 25, 2017

In my Easter sermon from this year, which I will post on my blog soon, I spend about half the sermon talking about evidence for the resurrection, based on clues from the sermon text, Matthew 28:1-20. The text itself invites us to look at the evidence. Frederick Dale Bruner, the theologian whose commentary on Matthew has proven so valuable for my sermon series in Matthew, certainly thinks so. He writes the following in relation to verse 6 and the angel’s words to the two Marys: “Come and take a look at the place where they put him.”

Among other things, this is the Gospel’s invitation to scientific research. The angel does not say, “Don’t look in here! Take it by faith! Don’t ask any questions!” Instead, the angel invites the women to check out his assertions with their senses. “Come, use your eyes and your mind, and see if what I say is true.” The scientific study of the biblical documents (called the historical-critical method) asks critical questions: “Did this happen? Is this historical? Is this parabolic? How does this fit with other and differing accounts? What is to be made of this in light of that?” These questions are not unbelief; rather, they are one form of obedience to the command to “come and take a loot the place where they put him” to “see if these things are so” (Acts 17:11)….

The Christian does not get a lobotomy when he or she makes the decision to be a disciple. Jesus wants his people to be honest, to think about their faith, and to be able to investigate its problems. The angel’s command to empirical investigation is wonderfully freeing, and rightly heard it can protect the church from anti-intellectualism.

I affirm this, with two caveats: First, no purely “scientific” investigation can begin to answer questions about the resurrection of Jesus Christ, such that it won’t also require faith to believe in it. Ultimately, we only come to this faith by revelation from the Holy Spirit. As Jesus says, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him” (John 6:44).

Even an apologist like William Lane Craig—who has been criticized by some Reformed Christians (or at least one that I’ve heard, James White) for being too rational in his approach to God and the resurrection—believes that saving faith comes only by a revelatory act of the Spirit. By contrast, on his Reasonable Faith podcast, he said that when he was an undergraduate at Wheaton, one of his professors said he was so committed to the reasonableness of Christianity that he would abandon the faith if it proved unreasonable to believe it.

Craig said he was shocked: “If one of my arguments for God or the truth of Christianity proved false, I would assume that a better argument existed—because I already know Christianity is true. And I know that by revelation.”

My second caveat is that the historical-critical method will never prove that all scripture is “breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.” Inasmuch as it’s “scientific,” this method isn’t, by definition, equipped to offer a judgment on the question. For that we need faith. By all means, the inerrancy or infallibility of the Bible can become more reasonable when we consider Jesus’ own high view of scripture. As a rule of thumb, when deciding whether something is true or not, always go with the opinion of the guy who was raised from the dead!

But in my own experience over the past eight years—having gone from doubting the Bible’s authority to believing in it to the utmost—I will say this: most of the Bible’s “problems,” such as they are, can be resolved once we ask ourselves this question: “What should I expect to be true if God the Holy Spirit guided the author to write what he wrote?”

As an example, consider this debate between skeptic and New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman and Tim McGrew on the Unbelievable? podcast. McGrew was discussing “undesigned coincidences” in the New Testament: when one small part of the New Testament unintentionally corroborates another small part—such that the two parts fit together like interlocking jigsaw puzzle pieces. McGrew was right: undesigned coincidences are a powerful apologetic tool, but only if you’re willing to entertain the idea that the Spirit inspired the different authors of the New Testament.

Are you willing or not? If not, why not?

Over at Scot McKnight’s blog, a trolling progressive Christian whose name I won’t mention often comments on McKnight’s blog posts. In even the most innocuous post that affirms the authority of scripture, you can count on a skeptical comment from this reader. I want to say to him, “Yes, but suppose the evangelicals are right after all, and the Bible is reliable and true when it reports this or that. Why are you against that? What’s at stake for you in believing that the Bible isn’t historically reliable? Why do you prefer to believe that the Bible is, at best, only true in a metaphorical way?”

If I believed I could have a productive conversation I would ask him, but I know from experience I can’t.

Come to think of it, I could ask the same of my progressive Methodist clergy colleagues!

Did Peter write 1 Peter?

April 21, 2017

If you’re unfamiliar with the world of critical scholarship, which takes for granted that the author of 1 and 2 Peter writes pseudonymously, this question may seem ridiculous. But for people like me, a late convert to theologically conservative evangelicalism, who holds the authority of scripture in highest esteem, I feel compelled to grapple with it. After all, I no longer believe that pseudonymous writing was ethically O.K. in the ancient world. (Skeptical New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman is right to hammer his progressive Christian colleagues on this point!)

But once you ask on what basis critical scholars believe that Peter didn’t write the letters attributed to him (as you may ask about the disputed letters of Paul, viz. Ephesians, Colossians, 2 Thessalonians, 1 and 2 Timothy, and Titus), the evidence is unconvincing.

Remember: From the earliest time, the Church believed that these letters were written by Peter. His authorship was never disputed. Why do we know so much more than the Church Fathers did? They were no dummies (to say the least). For all we know about the Greek language and the Greco-Roman world, any educated person living within a few generations of Jesus knew much more.

Not to mention that most of what we clergy know about the Greek language and Greco-Roman culture is second- or third-hand, anyway. Most of us can’t read Greek. Even if we can, we haven’t done any original research. Yet we’re confident that we know—on the basis of nuances of Greek language and Greco-Roman culture—that Peter didn’t write his letters, or Paul didn’t write some of his! It’s laughable, when you think about it!

Not to mention that the Church Fathers either knew the apostles or knew people who knew them. They had access to living memories of the apostles in a way that modern scholars don’t.

I had a professor of church history who made this point: He argued that most of us can reach back in time about 200 years through the memories of people we know. For example, my grandmother—my mother’s mother—died in 1987. She was born around the turn of the century. If I had the foresight, I could have interviewed my grandmother about memories of her grandmother, who could have shared with my grandmother memories of her grandmother—who was born in the middle of the 18th century. So even though I was born in 1970, I could have, with a little effort, accessed memories from 1770.

(While we’re on the subject, did you know that grandchildren of John Tyler, the tenth president of the United States, are still living? That blows my mind!)

My point is, we have every reason to trust that the Church Fathers were correct in believing that Peter wrote the two letters attributed to him. They knew more about it than we do today! Otherwise, how are we not falling victim to chronological snobbery?

Regardless, Peter Davids, author of Eerdmans’s New International Commentary on 1 Peter, wrote some helpful words on the subject that don’t depend on the authority of the Fathers. One reason, he says, that many scholars reject Petrine authorship is that the author sounds too much like Paul. “Peter” (forgive the scare quotes) uses phrases that Paul uses. “Peter” emphasizes themes that Paul emphasizes. “Peter” writes to churches with which Paul was better acquainted. To this, Davids writes the following:

If this work is so Pauline and if the area of the recipients was so Pauline, why would a pseudonymous author not attribute it to Paul? After all, Paul, unlike Peter, was known for his letter writing. Furthermore, many of the same scholars who reject the Petrine authorship of 1 Peter point to the Pastoral Epistles and other Pauline works as being pseudonymous. If Pauline pseudepigrapha was this common, since 1 Peter has such a Pauline tone one must justify why such an author would not attribute his work to Paul.[1]

Besides, one good reason for the similarity to Paul is Peter’s reference in 1 Peter 5:12 to Silvanus, a known associate of Paul:

[T]he reference to Silvanus in 1 Pet. 5:12 may be the best clue we have, for he is probably the same associate of Paul mentioned elsewhere (2 Cor. 1:19; 1 Thess. 1:1; 2 Thess. 1:1). If Peter were indeed in Rome, one could well imagine his hearing of localized persecution in the provinces, in areas in which he may or may not have traveled. Peter may have been in prison by that time, or have seen the storm clouds gather about him in Rome. It is quite possible that he received the news, not through his own contacts, but though Silvanus and his contacts. In any case, the letter suggests that he authorized Silvanus to write in his name…

How much Peter personally had to do with the letter is unknown. For example, if he were in prison, he may not have had the freedom to write and receive guests that Paul did, for Paul was able to live in a hired house (Acts 28:16, 30). He may simply have been moved by compassion and apostolic insight to request Silvanus to send an encouraging letter to a group of suffering Christians about whom he had heard, mentioning to them those Christians in Rome such as Mark, whose names would presumably mean something to the believers in Asia Minor. He may have given detailed instructions and later reviewed the letter (perhaps even writing the closing paragraph with his own hand, as was normal Greek custom, 2 Thess. 3:17), or he may have never seen it, having given only the briefest of instructions. But the letter was written, written in the style in which Silvanus was accustomed to writing, that is, Paul’s, written with whatever he knew of Peter’s teaching and ideas, and attributed to Peter as it should have been.[2]

Granted, there’s much speculation here. But unless you’re already predisposed to doubt the inspiration of scripture, this speculation seems far more reasonable than believing that an inspired author of documents that (we believe) the Holy Spirit preserved in what is now our New Testament was lying.

1. Peter H. Davids, The First Epistle of Peter (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990), 5.

2. Ibid., 6-7.

“What punishments of God are not gifts?”

August 24, 2015

Bart Ehrman and Stephen Colbert

As a longtime Letterman fan, I was pleased with CBS’s selection of Stephen Colbert to succeed him. First, Colbert has been one of the sharpest wits on TV—original and fearless. He’s also proven to be a first-rate interviewer. Colbert will ensure that in the area of interviews, at least, there will be continuity between his show and Letterman’s old show—at a time when other late-night comedy shows, such as Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show, seemingly deemphasize them.

Second, I’ve appreciated that Colbert, a Catholic, has never hidden or downplayed his Christian faith. What other TV personality, on Ash Wednesday, appears on air with ashes on his forehead? I also appreciate that he makes skeptics like Bart Ehrman squirm.

Sgt. Calhoun is "programmed with the most tragic backstory ever."

Sgt. Calhoun is “programmed with the most tragic backstory ever.”

In yesterday morning’s sermon, I used clips from the Disney movie Wreck-It Ralph to illustrate biblical truths. In one clip, for example, we learn that video game character Sgt. Calhoun was “programmed with the most tragic backstory ever.”

I then described Colbert’s recent interview in GQ magazine, in which he talked about his own “tragic backstory”: losing his father and his two closest brothers in a plane crash when he was only 10.

In the interview, Colbert described the time that J.R.R. Tolkien received a letter from a priest complaining that his novels and short stories weren’t theologically correct because they treated death as a gift, rather than a punishment for sin after the Fall:

“Tolkien says, in a letter back: ‘What punishments of God are not gifts?’ ” Colbert knocked his knuckles on the table. “ ‘What punishments of God are not gifts?’ ” he said again. His eyes were filled with tears. “So it would be ungrateful not to take everything with gratitude. It doesn’t mean you want it. I can hold both of those ideas in my head.”

He was 35, he said, before he could really feel the truth of that. He was walking down the street, and it “stopped me dead. I went, ‘Oh, I’m grateful. Oh, I feel terrible.’ I felt so guilty to be grateful. But I knew it was true.”

While we may prefer to speak of the “disciplines of God,” rather than the “punishments,” the fact remains—and scripture loudly affirms—that God uses our tragic backstories for good, to mold us and shape us into the people that he wants us to be.

If this weren’t the case, how do we make sense of Paul’s admonition in 1 Thessalonians 5? “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”

Recently, however, I analyzed a sermon by a fellow United Methodist pastor who obviously would disagree.

What do you think? Do you agree with Stephen Colbert? Does God turn our “tragic backstories” into gifts?

Do the four gospels reflect ideological “development”?

August 11, 2015

In the world of mainline Protestant seminary education, we take for granted the following “facts”: Mark is the earliest gospel and therefore the most “historical.” Since the understanding of Jesus as God developed over time, Mark portrays Jesus as more human and less divine than the other gospels. Matthew and Luke, written later, use Mark as a source for their own gospels, while also relying on a source they have in common, called “Q.” Inconveniently, this source—again, a taken-for-granted fact for us victims of mainline Protestant education—has managed to vanish without a trace.

While Matthew and Luke have access to other sources, unique to their respective gospels, neither is interested in telling a straightforward history. Rather, each has an ideological agenda to suit their particular audience. They freely change the historical data and invent stories and sayings of Jesus to suit this ideology.

John, meanwhile, written much later than the other three, portrays Jesus as nearly a superhero. It is by far the least historical.

And of course, none of the gospels was written by its attributed author; none is based on apostolic sources.

As you can guess, I now reject all of these highly speculative articles of faith. I’m happy to grant that Mark is the earliest gospel, but the truth is, as N.T. Wright points out, we don’t know for sure when the gospels were written—besides which, they were likely based on oral traditions that long predated them. (But even the consensus of critical scholarship now grants that John’s gospel was written within the first century; this wasn’t the case 50 years ago.) Also, there’s nothing at stake in believing that Matthew and Luke had access to Mark as a source, except… If they merely “copied” Mark, as so many critical scholars believe, why did they copy Mark so poorly?

I’m not talking about alleged changes they make to suit their agendas; I’m talking about differences in minor details that serve no ideological purpose—for example, did the four friends lower the paralytic through a thatched roof or tiled roof? Most neutral observers would say, I think, that these differences in details would be evidence of historians working with some degree of independence, relying on different sources or eyewitnesses.

All that to say, you can hear all the biases and clichés of mainline critical scholarship on full display in a recent two-part debate (here and here) on the Unbelievable? podcast between the famously agnostic New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman and Christian apologist Tim McGrew, a philosophy professor at Western Michigan University.

McGrew’s wife, Lydia, herself a fierce apologist, has written lengthy responses to both debates on her personal blog. Earlier this year, however, she wrote this post debunking the “development” trajectory in the four gospels’ Passion narratives. Before offering her own evidence, she challenges her readers to pick up their Bibles and see for themselves if they discern this progression from “more human” to “more divine.” She concludes:

I submit that we need to get over, well over, and forever over, the entire picture of the gospel writers as “making Jesus say” things he never said, portraying different “Jesuses” in a literary fashion, and “developing” Jesus for their own agendas. That is not the way the evidence points. It is a mere construct of airy and unsubstantiated literary critical approaches. If anyone tells you that Jesus “develops” in the gospels, let your antennae twitch good and hard. Then, if you are interested, go and see for yourself that it isn’t so.

A mere construct of airy and unsubstantiated literary critical approaches. Love it!

It reminded me of a blog post that theologian Andrew Wilson wrote last year about another Unbelievable? debate, this time between two self-identified evangelicals, Peter Enns and David Instone-Brewer. Enns was defending a more critical approach to reading and interpreting the gospels. During the debate, Enns said the following:

I can see, for example, in the context of the Caesar-cult, that it makes perfect sense for Luke to have the Magi come, it makes perfect sense for me to have that there, because Jesus is the true king of the world. Or, you know, a virgin birth. Or, for Matthew, shepherds, right? For a God to come to the lowly, the unexpected, which supports (in my opinion) Matthew’s theology, which is summarised in the Sermon on the Mount: God is doing the unexpected … So could I see them making this up? Absolutely. It doesn’t mean they made it up, but I can see it, in terms of an ideology.

Notice any problem with Enns’s statement? Wilson did.

My concern here is not primarily with the obvious blunder, namely that it is Matthew (not Luke) who describes the coming of the Magi, and that it is Luke (not Matthew) who describes the visit of the shepherds; everyone makes mistakes. Nor is it with the fact that Enns says this in a discussion in which he stresses his credentials as a biblical scholar; even biblical scholars make mistakes, and it may well be that he kicked himself for this one after the programme. Nor is it with the idea that the evangelists deliberately selected and arranged their material to suit their agendas; that I take as axiomatic. Rather, it is the fact that even though Enns has got the details absolutely upside-down, he is still able to posit an “ideology” that could account for the Gospel writers “making this up.” He is so persuaded that the Bible is full of invented stories, written to support existing ideologies, that he sees them even when they don’t exist. (Richard Dawkins, interestingly, makes exactly the same point, with exactly the same error, in The God Delusion.)

The fact is, you can argue almost anything to be an ideological invention if you adopt this approach. Matthew made up X because God is doing the unexpected. Luke made up Y because of the Caesar-cult. John made up Z because, well, John. Once the rot sets in, no text is safe, no matter how innocent, and no ideologically-driven explanation is beyond plausibility, no matter how preposterous. As such, the only ideologically-driven invention here – though, as I say, I’m certain it is a genuine mistake – is that of Peter Enns, not Matthew or Luke.

In other words, once you buy into the hypothesis that the gospel writers were ideologically driven, this hypothesis is unfalsifiable.

It must be Christmas (or Easter): Newsweek trolls Christians again

December 27, 2014


Two Christmases ago, I wrote the following about Newsweek‘s semiannual Christian-baiting cover story. Their article that year was written by every atheist’s favorite New Testament scholar, Bart Ehrman, and his embrace of the “pious legend theory” regarding the virgin birth.

What bothers me is not that Ehrman’s point of view is represented, but that his is the only point of view represented, as if people who actually believe in the virgin birth are members of the Flat Earth Society. There are plenty of other seriously good New Testament scholars and theologians—including, for example, that German one who now heads the Roman Catholic Church—who could happily go toe-to-toe with Ehrman on the facts. Do they still employ reporters at Newsweek, or is every article now an op-ed piece? Under the rules of journalism, a reporter would have represented these other voices.

To their small credit, Newsweek at least employed a writer in Ehrman who has credentials—an actual Bible scholar at a university, however far outside of mainstream scholarship he may be.

This year’s cover story, written by an uncredentialed journalist named Kurt Eichenwald, never lets facts stand in the way of a good story. I’m not exaggerating: Nearly every paragraph is wrong—wrong on facts, wrong on history, wrong on Bible scholarship (obviously). The title of the story, “The Bible: So Misunderstood It’s a Sin,” couldn’t be more ironic.

Let’s start near the beginning, with one of his first supposedly factual assertions:

No television preacher has ever read the Bible. Neither has any evangelical politician. Neither has the pope. Neither have I. And neither have you. At best, we’ve all read a bad translation—a translation of translations of translations of hand-copied copies of copies of copies of copies, and on and on, hundreds of times.

Oh, dear. If he means to say that no one today has read the original autographs of the Hebrew and Greek manuscripts that make up our Bibles, then that’s true, but only trivially so. By that standard no one has read any ancient writing. But even worse: when we read Homer or Sophocles or Plato, we’re not only not reading the originals, we’re reading a translation (assuming we don’t know Greek) of copies of copies of copies that are far less well-attested than anything in the New Testament.

But even worse: Assuming Smithsonian Magazine is telling us the truth, by that standard we also haven’t read Shakespeare. Only copies of copies of copies:

Even if you’re a regular visitor to London, it’s probably never occurred to you to stop in to see William Shakespeare’s original manuscripts at the British Museum or Library. That’s just as well. There are no original manuscripts. Not so much as a couplet written in Shakespeare’s own hand has been proven to exist.

When Eichenwald says that we’ve only read a “bad translation—a translation of translations of translations of hand-copied copies of copies of copies of copies, and on and on, hundreds of times,” he’s either, at best, stunningly ignorant or at least incredibly disingenuous. How else can we interpret his words?

Where does this “translations of translations of translations” nonsense come from? He’s wrong, for example, when he asserts that the King James Version was a translation of the Latin Vulgate. (Mr. Eichenwald: Wikipedia is your friend. Or I think I might lend you my parents’ old World Book Encyclopedia.) The Douay–Rheims is an old Catholic English translation of the Vulgate, but even modern Catholic translations—like the New American Bible, the New Jerusalem Bible, and their descendants—translate the Hebrew and Greek.

The King James translated a collection of Hebrew and Greek manuscripts known as the Textus Receptus. Newer Bible translations are generally more faithful to the original Hebrew and Greek because they’re based on older manuscripts than the ones the Church had access to in the seventeenth-century. The fact that we have access to so many manuscripts means that we can be more confident that our Bible reflects what its writers originally wrote.

Regardless, the King James isn’t even a “translation of a translation”; it’s a translation of Greek and Hebrew manuscripts, just like any similar ancient writing, except, as I’ve noted, we have access to far older and more reliable manuscripts of biblical books than we do of other ancient writing.

I could go on, but this is literally in Eichenwald’s first section. It doesn’t get better, I promise.

And then there’s the tone of the piece. Here are the first two paragraphs:

They wave their Bibles at passersby, screaming their condemnations of homosexuals. They fall on their knees, worshipping at the base of granite monuments to the Ten Commandments while demanding prayer in school. They appeal to God to save America from their political opponents, mostly Democrats. They gather in football stadiums by the thousands to pray for the country’s salvation.

They are God’s frauds, cafeteria Christians who pick and choose which Bible verses they heed with less care than they exercise in selecting side orders for lunch. They are joined by religious rationalizers—fundamentalists who, unable to find Scripture supporting their biases and beliefs, twist phrases and modify translations to prove they are honoring the Bible’s words.

Who exactly are these Christians “waving their Bibles” and “screaming their condemnations of homosexuals”? Surely if there were enough of them to “gather in football stadiums by the thousands” I would have seen more than two of them on a city street corner in the past 20 years.

Or is he conflating evangelical Christians (not to mention faithful Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and Anglican Christians) with the late Fred Phelps, whose Westboro Baptist had about a dozen members, mostly from the same family.

Given his sweeping generalizations, it’s hard to disagree with Michael Kruger’s assessment that this hit piece “goes so far beyond the standard polemics, and is so egregiously mistaken about the Bible at so many places, that the magazine should seriously consider a public apology to Christians everywhere.”

I won’t hold my breath.

Regardless, scholars are responding to his piece. Dr. James White is one of them. You can watch or listen to his in-depth response here. On Twitter, Eichenwald accused Dr. White of “name-calling” when White said that he was ignorant. But when you don’t know Hebrew or Greek, when you haven’t formally studied church history or Christian theology, when all your research is, at best, second-hand, what other word should we use? Ill-informed? Is that better?

You’re either ignorant or you’re lying. At least being ignorant isn’t a knock against your character.

Bart Ehrman’s bad arguments

April 22, 2014

I spent about fifteen minutes of my sermon on Sunday reviewing some evidence for believing in the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. While I could have said much more, for my purposes it’s enough to know that plenty of scholars have said much more, and that what I did say was backed up by good scholarship.

My purpose wasn’t to “prove” the resurrection—we can’t prove it any more than we can prove that Caesar crossed the Rubicon or other events of ancient history that we take for granted. Rather, I wanted to remind and encourage Christians that the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ rests on solid historical evidence.

The best reason, I suppose, for not believing in the resurrection event to which the evidence points is that of course resurrections aren’t the kind of things that happen. And how do skeptics know that resurrections don’t happen? Because of the lack of evidence, they would say. Except in the case of Jesus we have evidence, right? And the resurrection has only happened once. So there’s some circularity to their argument.

Regardless, if we Christian pastors never engage in apologetics, who will? There are fine apologists out there, but these scholars don’t make the cover of Time or Newsweek, nor do they have columns in the Huffington Post, nor are they usually interviewed on cable or network talk shows.

Leave that sort of notoriety to skeptical scholars like Bart Ehrman. He has a new book out, How Jesus Became God. To the credit of his publisher (thank you, Rupert Murdoch?), HarperCollins has also simultaneously published a Christian response, How God Became Jesus, by a team of evangelical scholars.

You can get a sense of the Ehrman book from this Huffington Post column by Ehrman. Before I criticize it, let’s appreciate what Ehrman, a former fundamentalist Christian-turned-agnostic, is willing to concede. He says that as he was researching his book he was surprised that, contrary to what he previously believed, the disciples of Jesus believed that Jesus was God from the time they became convinced he was resurrected. In other words, he doesn’t think that the belief that Jesus was God emerged decades after Jesus’ death.

And by believing this, Ehrman rules out at least three competing theories: the “pious legend” theory—that the resurrection idea emerged long after Jesus’ death; the conspiracy theory—that the original disciples knew that Jesus hadn’t been resurrected, but they invented the story; and the “swoon theory”—that Jesus only appeared to die on the cross, regained consciousness after burial, and emerged from the tomb.

As a critique of what he does believe, there’s much to be said, and I’m sure that the evangelicals scholars who wrote their book-length response cover it nicely. Nevertheless, I’d like to respond to the last few paragraphs of his column, in which he writes the following:

The followers of Jesus came to think he had been raised because some of them (probably not all of them) had visions of him afterwards. Both Christian and non-Christian historians can agree that it was visions of Jesus that made some of Jesus’ followers convinced that he was no longer dead. Christians would say that the disciples had these visions because Jesus really appeared to them. Non-Christians would say that (several of ) the disciples had hallucinations. Hallucinations happen all the time. Especially of deceased loved ones (your grandmother who turns up in your bedroom) and of significant religious figures (the Blessed Virgin Mary, who appears regularly in extraordinarily well-documented events). Jesus was both a lost loved one and an important religious leader. As bereaved, heartbroken, and guilt-ridden followers, the disciples were prime candidates for such visionary experiences.

Once the disciples claimed Jesus was alive again but was (obviously) no longer here with them, they came to think that he had been taken up to heaven (where else could he be?). In ancient Greek, Roman, and Jewish thinking, a person exalted to the heavenly realm was divinized – himself made divine. That’s what the earliest Christians thought about Jesus. After that a set of evolutionary forces took over, in which the followers of Jesus began saying more and more exalted things about him – that he had been made the son of God at his resurrection; no, it was at his baptism; no, it was at his birth; no, it was before he came into the world; no – he had never been made the son of God, he had always been the Son of God; in fact, he had always been God; more than that, he had created the world; and yet more, he was an eternal being equal with God Almighty.

It’s a fascinating set of developments. It is highly important. And it matters not just for those who believe that the followers of Jesus got it right, but for anyone who cares about the factors that shaped the world we live in today.

Ehrman writes: “Both Christian and non-Christian historians can agree that it was visions of Jesus that made some of Jesus’ followers convinced that he was no longer dead. Christians would say that the disciples had these visions because Jesus really appeared to them.” (My responses are indented.)

Not quite: Christians would say that the disciples experienced not merely “visions,” but a fully embodied person. The Gospels go out of their way to portray that Jesus is a physical being, capable of eating and drinking, touching and being touched.

Why am I being picky? Because there are plenty of words to describe an immaterial “vision” of Jesus. These eyewitnesses didn’t use those words. They said that Jesus had been resurrected, which has a very specific, physical meaning within a Jewish context. And as I argued in my sermon on Sunday, nothing would tempt pious Jews such as the Twelve disciples, James the half-brother of Jesus, and the apostle Paul to apply the word “resurrection” to what they had experienced unless they were convinced that Jesus had appeared to them physically.

Also, as I said on Sunday, Jesus also appeared to groups of disciples, as one resurrection eyewitness, St. Paul, says in 1 Corinthians 15. People don’t experience hallucinations of the exact same thing at the same time. Paul could have been wrong, of course, but he does challenge skeptics to prove him wrong by saying that most of these “more than 500” eyewitnesses are still alive. He was convinced that there were hundreds of people who, like him, could back up his story. Was Paul mistaken? Did these hundreds of people not exist? Or were they also completely wrong about experiencing the resurrected Lord?

“Hallucinations happen all the time,” Ehrman writes. “Especially of deceased loved ones (your grandmother who turns up in your bedroom) and of significant religious figures (the Blessed Virgin Mary, who appears regularly in extraordinarily well-documented events).”

If hallucinations “happen all the time,” they probably happened “all the time” back in Jesus’ day, too. Yet people rarely claimed that these hallucinations meant their loved ones had returned from the dead. Isn’t it likely that before these apostles went around the Roman Empire suffering persecution, torture, and death, they would be convinced that Jesus’ resurrection was something very different from any old hallucination—which, as Ehrman says, happens all the time? They would also know the difference between a spiritual experience of the Lord versus the physical experience that they claimed.

Or think of it like this: When your deceased grandmother “turns up in your bedroom,” do you therefore believe that she’s no longer dead? Do you believe not that she’s a figment of you imagination or even a real ghost, but a living, breathing person who has risen from the dead? Does this “hallucination” convince you to drop whatever else you’re doing and tell everyone that your grandmother is no longer dead? Are you so convinced that she’s come back to life that you’re willing to die for that belief?

Do Catholics who believe they’ve seen the Blessed Virgin Mary believe that they’ve seen her as a fully embodied person, every bit as alive on this earth as any other living person? Based on what I know, they believe they’ve had a spiritual experience—through weeping or talking statues or paintings, etc.

“Jesus was both a lost loved one and an important religious leader. As bereaved, heartbroken, and guilt-ridden followers, the disciples were prime candidates for such visionary experiences.”

As I said in my sermon, there were dozens of documented would-be messiahs in first-century Palestine. Why did none of these other “bereaved, heartbroken, and guilt-ridden followers” claim that their leader had been resurrected? Were they not also “prime candidates” for such “visionary experiences”?

“In ancient Greek, Roman, and Jewish thinking, a person exalted to the heavenly realm was divinized – himself made divine. That’s what the earliest Christians thought about Jesus.”

Well, no… Ancient Jews never claimed that Enoch or Elijah were God! Is Ehrman just being sloppy with words? The whole point of his book is to say that Christians believed something radically different about Jesus. Jesus’ disciples were ancient Jews. While they believed that Enoch and Elijah had been taken up into heaven before death, they clearly thought something very different happened to Jesus.

Greeks and Romans believed that some people had been “exalted to the heavenly realm,” but they never believed that they had first been resurrected! Again, resurrection has a very specific meaning: it implies that someone returns to life in a bodily form—not as a ghost or vision or anything else. Greeks and Romans in general found the idea of resurrection offensive: the body was a prison from which the soul longed to escape. Read Acts 17:22-33. In Paul’s presentation of the gospel, when do things go badly? When he mentions the resurrection! Being exalted to the heavenly realm was just fine in Greco-Roman thought. Resurrection, by contrast, was offensive.

Bart Ehrman has appeared on The Colbert Report at least a couple of times. Colbert’s responses to Ehrman’s skepticism are perfect.



About Bart Ehrman’s Newsweek cover story

December 19, 2012

newsweekcoverIt must be either Christmas or Easter, because one of the major newsweeklies is featuring New Testament historian Bart Ehrman in its pages. You know Ehrman—the former self-described fundamentalist-turned-agnostic. Several years ago, he was the go-to Bible guy for the New Atheist movement. His defection from the ranks of Christian believers gave him extra credibility in their eyes. (Never mind that traffic on that particular highway flows in both directions.)

Still, Ehrman proved to be an unreliable witness for the prosecution. For example, his book-length defense this year of the historicity of Jesus of Nazareth (a proposition, by the way, doubted by no serious historian) rankled many erstwhile skeptic friends. And, truth be told, he doesn’t say anything about the virgin birth in Newsweek that any mainline Protestant seminarian isn’t exposed to in the first semester of New Testament class. There’s nothing new or startling here—only a rehash of 200 years of modernist thinking.

Heck, if I didn’t know better, I’d say Ehrman was just another friendly liberal Christian, like so many others in academia. For him, the virgin birth is pious legend communicating theological rather than historical truth—you know, if you go for that sort of thing.

On the other hand, how else is Ehrman going to come across in Newsweek? The editors must imagine that they have more than a handful of Christian readers, and heaven knows they need all of them they can get!

What bothers me is not that Ehrman’s point of view is represented, but that his is the only point of view represented, as if people who actually believe in the virgin birth are members of the Flat Earth Society. There are plenty of other seriously good New Testament scholars and theologians—including, for example, that German one who now heads the Roman Catholic Church—who could happily go toe-to-toe with Ehrman on the facts. Do they still employ reporters at Newsweek, or is every article now an op-ed piece? Under the rules of journalism, a reporter would have represented these other voices.

I’m no historian or Bible scholar, but I spot a couple of problems with Ehrman’s point of view. First is his insistence that evidence within the Bible itself doesn’t count—that we need independent corroboration. This is a double-standard. Modern historians who study the ancient world accept single-sourced evidence all the time. From what I’ve read, if we required independent corroboration before we believed anything in the ancient past, we would have to be skeptical of much of what we otherwise take for granted.

Besides, except for Mary herself—who we know for sure was a member of the early church—who else could have possibly witnessed the Annunciation and reported what happened? Were those shepherds abiding in the fields supposed to call the New York Times or something?

Also, to what end would the early church invent a virgin birth account? The premise behind the so-called “pious legend” theory is that Matthew and Luke (or the people behind their traditions) invented the Christmas story in order to sell the idea that Jesus was the Son of God—that they were adding an extra layer of divinity to Jesus to really hammer home the point. Look—here’s a rather literal way in which Jesus is God’s Son: God impregnated Mary!

To which I say: As if!

As if people living in the first century were really gullible. As if the ancients didn’t know the facts of life. As if they didn’t know that babies were only conceived by a human father. The premise behind the pious legend theory is obviously wrong. Why else does Matthew report that Joseph wanted to divorce Mary? Because this naive first-century carpenter of course had no trouble believing his fiancée when she told him about her pregnancy? Hardly! The New Testament writers knew that they weren’t helping their cause by including a difficult-to-believe story about Mary’s conceiving a child without a human father. Moreover, given that the Church could have arrived at most of its theological commitments about Jesus without the virgin birth (both the Gospel of Mark and John have no Christmas story, and Paul makes only a passing reference to it), why introduce a new problem into the story unless—oh, yeah—you happen to believe it’s true?

No, what’s beneath Ehrman’s point of view, I fear, is the chronological snobbery that people in the ancient world were dummies, and now we know better. I don’t buy it.

But Ehrman isn’t a believer, so what else is he going to think? What about those of us who are believers? Is it really so difficult to believe in the virgin birth? As with most miracles in the Bible, if we already believe that a good God created this universe—which requires a rather large intervention in the physical world (without which, obviously, there would be no physical world)—is it really so much harder to believe that God intervened in Mary’s life in this way? If so, why?

In his wonderful new book on the first Christmas, Pope Benedict puts his finger on the answer. Regarding the virgin birth and the resurrection, he writes:

These two moments are a scandal to the modern spirit. God is “allowed” to act in ideas and thoughts, in the spiritual domain—but not in the material. That is shocking. He does not belong there. But that is precisely the point: God is God and he does not operate merely on the level of ideas. In that sense, what is at stake in both of these moments is God’s very godhead. The question that they raise is: does matter belong to him?

Naturally we may not ascribe to God anything nonsensical or irrational, or anything that contradicts his creation. But here we are not dealing the the irrational or contradictory, but precisely with the positive—with God’s creative power, embracing the whole of being. In that sense these two moments—the virgin birth and the real resurrection from the tomb—are the cornerstones of faith. If God does not also have power over matter, then he simply is not God. But he does have this power, and through the conception and resurrection of Jesus Christ has has ushered in a new creation. So as the Creator he is also our Redeemer. Hence the conception and birth of Jesus from the Virgin Mary is a fundamental element of our faith and a radiant sign of hope.[†]

Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives (New York: Image, 2012), 56-7.

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.

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.  Read the rest of this entry »