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Bart Ehrman vs. the Bible

May 2007 | by Peter Williams

Bart D. Ehrman is chairperson of the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is a renowned AmericanNew Testament scholar who is currently running a high-profile campaign against orthodox Christianity.

Given his age, he has every potential to match or surpass Richard Dawkins in his use of destructive and misleading arguments on a gullible public. He appears to want to be Public Enemy Number 1 for the Christians and Public Hero Number 1 for the infidels.

Deconversion

Before we look at his arguments and why they are wrong, we must ask who he is. Born in the 1950s, he grew up in one of those ‘churchgoing but not particularly religious’ American families. As a teenager he professed conversion after involvement in a Campus Life Youth for Christ club.

Thereafter he studied at the Moody Bible Institute, Wheaton College, and then Princeton Theological Seminary, taking a doctorate under the distinguished New Testament scholar Bruce Metzger.

It was at Princeton that he says he underwent a radical ‘deconversion’ when he came across a Bible problem he could not solve. This led him to question everything and has brought him to his current situation in which he describes himself as a ‘happy agnostic’. But happy or not, he has clearly developed a strong antipathy to the faith he once professed.

First best-seller

He began with what scholars love – obscure detail – writing his first book on the way a church father called Didymus the Blind quoted the Bible. His career then progressed gradually and he began publishing books making ever more sensational statements, until in 2005 he published his first best-seller – Misquoting Jesus: the story behind who changed the Bible and why (Harper; San Francisco).

Beginning with the story of his own deconversion, it was a phenomenal publishing success and was near the top of the US best-seller list for months. Ehrman featured in leading newspapers, chat shows and the rest.

It was thus only natural that when, last Easter, the discovery was announced of an old text entitled the Gospel of Judas (written long after the time of Jesus by some obscure group in Egypt), Ehrman should offer the public a definitive interpretation.

On a roll

There is no doubting Ehrman’s academic credentials. In terms of technical publication, editorships and accolades, he is near the top of his profession. His expertise, savvy with the media, and formidable speaking and writing skills feed the public’s huge appetite for whatever can discredit the Christian faith. Ehrman is currently on a roll.

However, much of what Ehrman says is not remotely original; he offers the same criticisms of the Bible that we’ve heard for years, albeit packaged for the postmodern generation. We look here at some of the arguments that permeate his writings.

‘Orthodox Christianity is late’

One of the core ideas in everything he writes is that orthodox Christianity did not predate alternative versions (we call them heresies but Ehrman wouldn’t). What we now consider orthodoxy, he says, was just the teaching that won out in the power struggle against the rest.

Thus in his view the term ‘Christian’ applies equally to the orthodox and to all the other groups that were denounced by the apostles and their successors. Gnostics, for example, were no less ‘Christian’ than the biblically orthodox.

So when Ehrman writes a book called Lost Christianities or says that the Gospel of Judas is ‘without doubt the most important archaeological discovery of the past 60 years’ for students of early Christianity, we need to remember that he attaches the word ‘Christianity’ to any early religious movement that recognises Jesus.

He is excited by the Gospel of Judas because it helps him find out about Gnostics in Egypt, which for him is Christianity. However, many will read his remarks and conclude that the Gospel of Judas tells us something real and true about Jesus and the apostles, which is exactly what it doesn’t do.

The problem with the view that orthodox Christianity is late, is that the earliest heresies can only be explained on the basis that orthodoxy came first! For instance, orthodox Christians shared the Jewish belief in one God who made everything. Gnostics created their hierarchy of ‘godlets’ later.

‘The orthodox corrupted Scripture’

Almost certainly Ehrman’s most influential scholarly book is The orthodox corruption of Scripture (Oxford, 1993) – in which he claims that it was not the heretics who changed scriptures, but the orthodox.

He then tries to link variations in manuscripts with specific theological debates that were going on in the second and third centuries and tries to show that the orthodox changed the Scriptures to fit their own preconceived ideas.

Many of the variations he mentions, however, are almost certainly accidental, and he is often extremely speculative in his assertions of what the original text ‘must have been’. He is quite capable of finding an obscure variation in a late source and arguing that it is original – and that all the other copies of the Bible are corrupted.

‘The Bible can’t be inspired because we don’t have the autographs (originals)’

Ehrman regularly misrepresents the evangelical view of inspiration. Since Evangelicals believe the autographs to be inspired, and since ‘we don’t have the autographs’, he concludes that we don’t have what is inspired.

Of course, when Evangelicals say that the autographs are inspired they mean that the words in the original manuscripts are inspired – not that the material of the original manuscripts was in some way special.

The words have been copied faithfully since then and we still have them. We still have what God inspired and the fact that we don’t have the material on which those words were originally written is irrelevant.

Although Ehrman’s confusion between the autographic materials and the words themselves has been pointed out to him, he still persists in using this argument against inspiration.

Titles that mislead

Despite Ehrman’s claims to intellectual honesty, he performs some tricks. One regular trick is a disjoin between what is claimed or suggested by the title of a book and its actual contents.

What impression is made by titles like Lost Christianities: the battles for Scripture and the faiths we never knew – or Lost Scriptures: books that did not make it into the New Testament?

Someone reading the cover will probably go away thinking that modern Christians have suppressed what Christianity was originally all about. Another example is Misquoting Jesus – a book that contains virtually nothing about anything Jesus said or how anyone changed it.

Many readers will just read his opening ‘testimony’ of deconversion and go away with the impression that our Bibles are completely unreliable. They probably won’t notice that Ehrman regularly qualifies his claims in his academic writings, and even occasionally in his popular works.

Statistics for the gullible

Then there are tricks with statistics. He estimates that there are between 200,000 and 400,000 variant readings in New Testament manuscripts. That’s even more variants, he says, than there are words in the New Testament.

The impression is given that everything in the New Testament is uncertain. But one could equally well retort that there are around 2.5 million pages of New Testament manuscript each containing hundreds of characters – offering hundreds of millions of opportunities for errors in transcription.

One might, in fact, be amazed that scribes made so few errors. But in fact the use of statistics is simply not relevant. If we were to imagine that print had never been invented and that all Bibles were still copied by hand nowadays, there would be even more ‘variations’ yet no less certainty about the text of the Bible – because a mistake in one copy doesn’t invalidate all the other copies without that mistake!

However, with sleight of hand, Ehrman has managed to turn a virtue of the New Testament manuscripts – their large number – into a vice.

So what are we to make of Ehrman?

There have always been those who argue against the Christian faith, and there have always been those who are led astray. However, despite all his learning, Ehrman has still not succeeded in presenting any cogent argument against the Christian faith.
When investigated, his arguments turn out to contain misunderstandings, misrepresentations and poor logic – and it is hard to dissociate these from his own tragic turn from faith.

As we come into contact with those who have come under his influence, we need to be ready to respond with confidence, intelligence and grace that God has given us a sure foundation in his holy, infallible and inspired Word.

It has recently been announced that the author of this article, who is currently Deputy Head of Divinity, History and Philosophy, and a senior lecturer in New Testament at the University of Aberdeen, has been appointed as Warden of Tyndale House, the Cambridge-based and internationally respected evangelical centre for Biblical and Theological Research.