Bart Ehrman, billed as “one of the world’s leading authorities on the Bible,” spoke at Kent State University on January 20, 2011 to a standing-room only crowd of maybe 350. Ehrman’s speech was titled “Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (And Why We Don’t Know About Them),” which is also the title of his latest book. Dr. Ehrman is the James A. Grey Distinguished Professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Although you might think that a distinguished professor of religious studies would be, well, religious, you would be wrong. Bart is now agnostic, having renounced his evangelical Christian beliefs after studying at Princeton Theological Seminary. Thus, the strange tension of being a distinguished professor in an area of scholarship which he believes produces no valid knowledge about the topic. Could you be a distinguished professor of medicine if you believed that diseases were all caused by evil spirits? Or a professor of psychology if you believed that mental illnesses were variations on the theme of people faking problems in order to get attention? How about a professor of physics who believes that the natural world is merely an illusion created by our imaginations? What would these professors study? Physics “as art” to be appreciated for elegance and beauty, although no matter is real? The kinds of acting abilities necessary to successfully fake mental illnesses? Ways to exorcise the spirits causing diabetes? This is the situation Bart finds himself in, but for the field of religious studies apparently there is no problem studying the subject matter as literature, history, sociology, anthropology, etc. with no expectation that any religious knowledge is valid.
Bart would probably not find this analysis amusing, as the tension he came to discuss was the tension between historical facts and Christian commitment. He argued that there are numerous contradictions in the gospels caused by authors who made things up (“redacting history”) in order to make theological points. For example, whoever wrote the gospel of John (Bart says “not John!”) wanted to emphasize the theological point that Jesus is the lamb of God, and so altered the time of Jesus’ death to correspond to the time when Passover lambs were slaughtered. Matthew and Luke (well…the anonymous educated people who wrote these books, and in Bart’s view certainly not the illiterate uneducated apostles for whom they are named) inserted Bethlehem into Jesus birth narrative in order to match the expectation that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem, when in fact Jesus was “clearly from Nazareth.”
This continued for an hour, and getting to the point of this very entertaining lecture, Bart argued that the gospel narratives should not be combined to provide a comprehensive account, because the discrepancies reveal that they are different documents that cannot be reconciled. Rather, these discrepancies help to reveal insights into the authors’ goals, theological musings, etc. To combine the gospel narratives violates what Bart calls “authorial integrity.” This is my favorite comment of the evening. It conceals his true motive, it sounds virtuous and scholarly, and yet it is hopelessly confused.
First, consider the virtue of preserving “authorial intent.” If the gospels are fraudulent, who cares what the author intended to say? If you want to study the gospels as literature or source documents of religious anthropology, that can make sense. But if the gospels are supposed to reveal spiritual truth, which is what the authors claim, then fraudulent documents cannot accomplish that aim and authorial intent is irrelevant. The value of authorial intent for works of fiction is different from the value of authorial intent for say, a computer manual or biology textbook. If a work of non-fiction is forged or altered to obscure the truth, then the work is practically worthless. That is to say, the gospels are designed to communicate good news, which is not so good if it is a lie. We might as well read Harry Potter novels and throw the bible in the trash.
Second, consider his argument that the gospels should not be combined to get a full picture of what happened, given that comparisons reveal irreconcilable differences. The gospels allege to describe historical events. Thus, it would be absolutely valid to compare the gospels in order to get a full picture of what happened, even when this involves combining the narratives. This is precisely what historians do. At Kent State, the events of May 4th, 1970 were characterized by conflicting reports regarding whether or not there was an order to fire, whether there were additional gunshots fired before the volley that killed four students (new evidence from 2010 suggests there was!), etc. To understand what happened, you would absolutely interview students, members of the National Guard, the faculty, the police, and the photographer (and FBI informant) who apparently emptied his .38 caliber handgun 75 seconds before the National Guard opened fire. Discrepancies in the testimonies do not suggest that the events did not happen. Same thing for the assassination of JFK, the holocaust, etc. Lack of complete agreement of accounts is not evidence that these events were fabricated by dishonest authors. Similarly, apparent discrepancies in the gospel accounts does not mean that Jesus was not born in Bethlehem.
Finally, consider Bart’s motive. He came to highlight the tension between Christian commitment and historical knowledge (he said so). This essentially means that he wants to undermine Christian commitment by showing that Christians are ill-informed, stupid, intellectually dishonest, and naïve, and ought to give up their faith to be consistent with reality. This brings us full-circle. Why does Bart Ehrman teach New Testament to large classes of undergraduates (300 in a section!) many semesters at UNC Chapel Hill? Why does he teach anything in the Religious Studies department? Why does he write so many books attacking Christianity? Well OK, he must like notoriety and money, but the over-arching goal is to attack and undermine the Christian faith. Again, this is like a physicist teaching students that the natural world is an illusion created by our imaginations, or a professor of medicine explaining which evil spirits are responsible for cancer, heart disease, and AIDS. On the face of it, this is absurd and shameful—unless you understand that this is normal in secular universities religious studies departments. They are stacked with God-hating faculty whose goal it is to strip away whatever faith students have. No one in the university cares because, after all, according to the secular world view, there is no spiritual truth or knowledge that could be taught.