Thursday, July 18, 2013

Reinventing Jesus and Bart Ehrman

I recently finished Bart Ehrman's Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew.

Not long ago, I read the book Reinventing Jesus: How Contemporary Skeptics Miss the Real Jesus and Mislead Popular Culture.  This book is by J. Ed Komoszewski, M. James Sawyer, and Daniel B. Wallace, and it is essentially a conservative Christian attempt to refute skeptical claims about Jesus.  There are skeptics who say that we cannot trust the Gospels because they were written decades after Jesus lived, because we don't have the original texts for them but rather manuscripts that may have been subject to scribal alteration, and because the books that we now have in the New Testament were chosen for canonization while other books were suppressed for not conforming to "orthodox" positions.

The book Reinventing Jesus had a variety of responses to these arguments.  To the charge that we can't trust the Gospels because they were written decades after the time of Jesus, the book replied that the Gospels are accurate depictions of what Jesus did and taught, for eyewitnesses to Jesus lived for decades and spread their message to many people, and that served as a check against inaccuracies creeping in.  The book also went into various scholarly criteria for determining what Jesus truly said and did, arguing that these criteria cannot categorically dismiss the historicity of some of Jesus' words and actions, but they can affirm and support the historicity of certain things that are narrated within the Gospels (see here for my post about John Meier's discussion of these criteria).  Moreover, on page 48, the book appeals to Paul's words in Galatians 2, where Paul says that he preached the same Gospel as the other apostles, who were eyewitnesses to Jesus.

On the charge that we can't trust the Gospels because we don't have the original manuscripts, Reinventing Jesus went into the criteria of text criticism, which can help us to evaluate different readings and arrive at what the original text said.  The book also contended that the texts that we have are largely uniform, and that most of their differences among one another do not affect doctrine but largely pertain to spelling, or like factors.  On the charge that the Gospels were chosen while other books were suppressed, the book argues that many of the books in the New Testament deserve to be there.  These books are earlier than the books that were rejected.  Many of the New Testament books were accepted even by heretics, such as Marcion, who included the letters of Paul and part of the Gospel of Luke in his own canon, while excluding books that would later be rejected by orthodox Christianity.  Moreover, the book takes on the argument that the church fathers simply attached a designation of apostolic authorship to the books that they liked.  The book contends that the church fathers made serious attempts to determine whether books were authentic or not, as they looked at the books' writing-style and considered eyewitness testimony about the books.  Moreover, Reinventing Jesus asks: if the church fathers could simply attach any prominent name to a book that they wanted to uphold, why did they say that Mark's Gospel was written by Mark rather than Peter (whose testimony the Gospel of Mark supposedly contains), when Peter was more prominent than Mark?

I decided to read some of Bart Ehrman's work to get another perspective on these debates.  I recently read his Orthodox Corruption of Scripture, which would become the basis for his popular bestseller, Misquoting Jesus.  And I read Lost Christianities.  I have another book that he wrote, Forged, but I'll save that book for another time.

What surprised me about Ehrman was that he essentially agreed with a lot of the data that is in Reinventing Jesus (not that Ehrman interacts with that work, but what I'm saying is that Ehrman overlaps with Reinventing Jesus on what the data are).  Ehrman agrees that the Gospels and the letters of Paul are from the first century, whereas many other Christian works are later than that.  While Ehrman makes a big deal in Lost Christianity about us not having the original manuscripts, he later provides an excellent explanation of the criteria of textual criticism and how they enable scholars to decide between manuscripts and readings, and he himself employs that criteria in The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture as he makes arguments about which reading was earlier, and which reflected later alteration.

But there are differences between Reinventing Jesus and the Ehrman books that I read.  First of all, my impression was that Reinventing Jesus presented the preservation of the authentic words and deeds of Jesus (and the proper interpretation of those words and deeds) as air-tight: eyewitnesses to Jesus were around for decades, and they spread the true message to enough people such that there was a check on inaccuracies creeping in.  But, as Ehrman argues, even the New Testament itself acknowledges that there were other versions of Christianity out there, which were attaining a lot of influence and gaining a significant number of followers.  Not very air-tight, is it?  Second, Ehrman makes a convincing case that there were Christian scribes who altered the text out of theological considerations: they wanted to make clear that Jesus was God, or was a man who suffered, or was distinct from God the Father, against Christians who were arguing the opposite.  Third, Ehrman contends that forgery went on in early Christianity, even among those who criticized forgery.  Ehrman refers to the Apostolic Constitutions, which purport to be from the apostles, even as they condemn forgery.  This argument seems to me to differ from what Reinventing Jesus says, for Reinventing Jesus appears to argue that forgery was anathema to the early Christians (at least the orthodox ones), and thus they would not resort to it.  Fourth, while Ehrman acknowledges that so-called "orthodox" Christians had criteria in determining which books were authentic (i.e., whether they were early or not), he notes that one of these criteria for authenticity was whether the book was orthodox.  That particular criterion strikes me as rather circular!  Fifth, on the issue of canon, Ehrman discusses the diversity of canon among different Christian communities: that some communities accepted and used books that others did not, including books that are not in many Christians' New Testaments today.  And, sixth, Ehrman says that the earliest Christians were probably like the Ebionites, who were Jewish-Christians, and that they very likely were adoptionists, who believed that Jesus was anointed the Son of God at some point rather than always being the Son of God.  In The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture, Ehrman refers to verses that appear to coincide with adoptionism; Reinventing Jesus, by contrast, refers to New Testament books (i.e., John) that present Jesus as divine and as pre-existent, while not addressing the sorts of passages that Ehrman cites.

I think that both Reinventing Jesus and also Ehrman raise valid points and make important arguments.  If I have a question for Ehrman, it is this: What would Ehrman do with Paul's statement in Galatians 2 that he (Paul) agreed with the apostles (who had been eyewitnesses to Jesus) about what the Gospel was?  Does that not show that there was some unity within the first century church, and that apostles were going out of their way to preserve the truth?  Unfortunately, at least in the books that I read, Ehrman does not address this.  Ehrman says that Acts presents the church as more unified than Galatians does, since Paul and Peter agree in Acts and give the same sorts of speeches, whereas Paul challenges Peter in Galatians.  But Ehrman does not address Paul's statement in Galatians 2 that he was preaching the same Gospel that the apostles supported.

Would Ehrman say that Paul in Galatians 2 was lying?  I have my doubts.  In Lost Christianities, Ehrman does not believe what Epiphanius says about the alleged sexual practices of certain Christian sects, but Ehrman does not believe that Epiphanius was consciously lying.  Rather, Ehrman contends that Epiphanius was talking about things that he himself did not see firsthand, and that what Epiphanius says about these groups is not necessarily accurate.  Because Ehrman gives Epiphanius the benefit of the doubt by not regarding him as a liar, my hunch is that Ehrman wouldn't call Paul a liar when Paul says that he and the apostles agreed on what the Gospel was.  But how would Ehrman explain Paul's statement?


  1. I don't think that Paul was lying, but given the conflicts he describes in the letter to the Galatians, I wonder if he isn't a bit like parents who, after a big fight, try to reassure their children "Mommy and Daddy still love each other." Paul wanted the Galatians to believe in the essential unity of viewpoint between himself and the pillars in Jerusalem, and perhaps he wanted to believe in it himself. Nevertheless, given Paul's insistence that they had added nothing to his message, I think that we have to take the claimed unity with a grain of salt. Paul may just have been one of those people who is so sure that he is always right that he assumes people agree with him even when they don't.

  2. Thanks for your comment, Vinny. That is an interesting way of looking at it.


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