Saturday, March 28, 2009

Ehrman's conundrum

I’ve decided that I need to expand my review of Bart Ehrman’s new book, Jesus Interrupted. In previous installments, I skipped over chapters 6 & 7.

In these chapters he talks about NT textual criticism, the formation of the NT canon, and the establishment of Christian orthodoxy, viz., the deity of Christ, messiahship of Jesus, as well as heaven and hell. They’re a rehash of stuff he’s already said in books like Misquoting Jesus and Lost Christianities.

I skipped over these chapters for the following reasons:

1.I’ve discussed the canon on many occasions, so I don’t feel the need to repeat myself here. I’d note in passing that Ehrman disregards textual evidence for the early formation of the NT canon (e.g. David Trobisch) as well as intertextual evidence for the NT canon.

2.Misquoting Jesus was subjected to a number of scathing reviews, some of which are available online.

3.There are many fine treatments of Messianic prophecy by scholars like T. D. Alexander, Derek Motyer, O. P. Robertson, and John Sailhamer–not to mention commentaries on specific passage (e.g. Waltke on Micah). Erhman ignores this material and simply regurgitates the standard liberal line.

4. Likewise, there are fine exegetical treatments of the afterlife in Scripture and extrascriptural tradition, viz. Richard Bauckham, The Fate of the Dead, or Christopher Morgan & Robert Peterson, Hell Under Fire.

5.There are a number of books on the market, some scholarly and some popular, which expound the high Christology of the NT and target the conspiratorial views of Ehrman, Dan Brown, and the Jesus Seminar. I don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Ehrman has a habit of ignoring his critics. To take a few examples:

Darrell Bock, The Missing Gospels

Darrell Bock & Dan Wallace, Dethroning Jesus

Robert Bowman et al, Putting Jesus in His Place

Craig Evans, Fabricating Jesus

Gordon Fee, Pauline Christology

Simon Gathercole, The Preexistent Son

Murray Harris, Jesus as God

Larry Hurtado, Lord Jesus Christ

Timothy Jones, Misquoting Truth

Ed Komoszewski et al, Reinventing Jesus

Nicholas Perrin, Lost in Translation?

Now I want to move onto to my major point:

1.Ehrman’s attack on the Christian faith utilizes the fashionable cliché that history is written by the winners. Therefore, you’re only getting one side of the story.

But this line of attack generates a dilemma for Ehrman. On the one hand, his conspiracy theory would only be impressive if the winners destroyed or effectively repressed the incriminating evidence. If the cover-up was successful, then we’d be in no position to know where the truth lies–since any evidence to the contrary was eliminated by the winners.

On the other hand, Ehrman can only prove his conspiracy theory by reconstructing what “really” happened. But his historical reconstruction presupposes that enough evidence survives from the losing side that we can, in fact, evaluate both sides of the argument.

In order to prove his theory, Ehrman must disprove his theory. He can only document his conspiracy theory if documentary evidence attesting his conspiracy theory is available. But, in that event, the winners didn’t succeed in writing the final chapter on early church history.

Since, by his own admission, contemporary Christians are in a position to evaluate both sides of the story, the cover-up failed.

2.At this point, Ehrman’s attack would only remain effective if you think the winners made the wrong call.

i) Ehrman’s attack might carry some weight with Christians (e.g. Catholics, Orthodox) for whom tradition is decisive. Since, however, Protestants are in the habit of sifting tradition, Ehrman’s attack, even if valid against high churchmen, would not be valid against Protestant theology, per se.

ii) Ehrman’s attack might carry some weight with Protestants if he could show that a high Christology is unscriptural, or that Jesus was not the prophesied Messiah, or that heaven and hell are post-biblical developments, or that our canon was wrongly decided.

However, Protestant scholars have defended all of these propositions. Hence, we don’t depend on the “winners” to underwrite our theology.

We can exegete a high Christology from the NT. We can exegete Messianic prophecy from the OT. We can exegete heaven and hell from both Testaments.

As a matter of fact, there are some differences between the Protestant canon, the Catholic canon, the Eastern Orthodox canon, and the Oriental Orthodox canon.

But ecclesiastical tradition is not the only line of evidence for the Protestant canon. We include Jewish evidence, text-critical evidence, and intertextual evidence.

3.Ironically, Ehrman the conspiracy-theorist is identical with Ehrman the conspirator. Ehrman has become the very thing he accuses the “winners” of being. For Ehrman presents the reader with a very one-sided version of the evidence. Ehrman withholds evidence that is damaging to his own position. Ehrman is knee-deep in his own cover-up.


  1. I have been enjoying your book review Steve it has been of great help. I was wondering If you could provide the links to the other reviews you posted on "Jesus Interrupted" Thanks


  2. If you click on the "Textual Transmission" link at the bottom of the post, you should actually get all the Ehrman articles.

  3. Mathetes,

    Thank you :-)


  4. I haven’t read the book Steve is reviewing, but I would add several points regarding the concept of rewriting history.

    - As with other historical matters, our concern here is probability, not possibility. The ability of those who make the accusation of revision to come up with possible scenarios consistent with their speculations doesn’t make those possible scenarios the best option.

    - The issue isn’t whether Christians, like other humans, have biases and could revise history to some extent. Rather, the issue is whether it’s likely that they revised history to an extent sufficient to warrant the critic’s view of Christianity. For example, the tendency of later Christians to read a monarchical episcopate into the earliest generations of Christianity, including in places where it apparently didn’t exist, could be an honest mistake rather than a dishonest revision. That sort of honest mistake doesn’t prevent other sources, like Jerome and John Chrysostom, from more accurately perceiving that the earliest forms of church government were different from the forms that existed in their day. And documents like the writings of Paul and the Didache weren’t changed so as to prevent us from discerning in them a form of church government other than the monarchical episcopate. Saying that some fourth-century sources revised history in the sense of honestly being mistaken about the history of the monarchical episcopate is different from saying that most or all fourth-century Christians deliberately altered, reinterpreted, or eliminated documents and dishonestly revised history in other ways, with nobody objecting or with the objectors being silenced in some manner. To refer to both scenarios as revisions of history, without making distinctions like the ones I just made, is misleading and allows references to one type of revision to be interpreted as references to the other type.

    - Any theory involving a revision of Christian history in the fourth century or later has to address the difficulties involved in altering, reinterpreting, or eliminating hundreds of years of previous documents, traditions, and other remains from previous generations. Christians attained more political power in the fourth century, but the religion was hundreds of years old and geographically widespread by then. Christians wouldn’t have been the only people who possessed documents, memories, etc. relevant to what had happened in previous generations. It’s doubtful that most or all Christians would go along with a major revision of history, one significant enough to warrant the critic’s rejection of Christianity, and the non-Christians of that period would have had even less reason to go along with it.

    - It would need to be explained how the alleged rewriting process itself left so few traces in the historical record. How would a Christian government or a church hierarchy, for example, go about removing all discussions of the revision process in letters sent by individuals and in other contexts?

    - Christians weren’t always in power everywhere Christianity existed in the early post-Nicene centuries. It’s not as though somebody like Julian the Apostate would be likely to go along with a revision process or refrain from mentioning such a revision that had happened in his lifetime or shortly before.

    - We have a lot of data predating the fourth century (archeological artifacts, Biblical manuscripts, etc.). That data is consistent with traditional Christianity. The more significant the revision that’s proposed, the more difficult it is to explain why this ante-Nicene data isn’t pointing us toward an accordingly different Christianity.

    - If the Christians of later generations had the ability and willingness to revise history in a major way, one wonders why they left so many references to the early absence of a monarchical episcopate, disputes among the apostles and other early church leaders, disagreements over the canon of scripture, etc. On the one hand, critics often suggest that early Christianity is so disunified that such diversity is significant evidence against Christianity. On the other hand, we’re supposed to believe that Christians rewrote the historical record in order to make themselves seem united and their beliefs ancient. What we see in the earliest centuries doesn’t come across as the work of people who had the ability and willingness to rewrite history however they wanted to. The Epistle Of Barnabas, Tertullian’s Montanism, and the errors of Origen, for example, don’t strike me as the work of a fourth-century Christian government.

    - Given the large amount of data we have suggesting high Christian moral standards and Christian sincerity (Christian martyrdom, Christian works of charity, etc.), is it likely that a major revision of Christian history would have occurred without the objection of at least a large Christian minority?

    - What’s the alternative to history’s being written by the winners? Should we let the Nazis who survived World War II write the history of that war? Should we think that they would be unbiased in such a situation, whereas the victors in the war are biased? Do those who object that Christian victors wrote Christian history reach similar conclusions about other histories written by other victors? Are they as skeptical of Greek history, Roman history, English history, etc. as they are of Christian history? Given that Christians don’t control what archeologists discover, what information non-Christians pass down about Christianity, etc., to what extent can we even say that Christian victors write the history of the religion?

  5. Ruben,

    I've now labeled my recent Ehrman posts, so if you click on the "Bart Ehrman" label, either on the post or the sidebar (lefthand side), it should pull up all of my recent Ehrman posts.

  6. Jason: : For example, the tendency of later Christians to read a monarchical episcopate into the earliest generations of Christianity, including in places where it apparently didn’t exist, could be an honest mistake rather than a dishonest revision. That sort of honest mistake doesn’t prevent other sources, like Jerome and John Chrysostom, from more accurately perceiving that the earliest forms of church government were different from the forms that existed in their day.

    Can you point to sources where this is talked about in a more thorough way?

  7. John,

    I’m not sure which of those subjects you have in mind, but here’s a thread in which I discussed early changes in church government and the opinions of men like Jerome and John Chrysostom on the matter. See, for example, the last post in the thread and the references I make there to previous discussions.

  8. Jason, that's almost precisely what I was looking for. I know that Raymond Brown discussed such things, but McGuckin (I think) doesn't have the "liberal" stigma that Brown seems to have (as I've found in discussions with Catholics).

  9. Jason, I should add that Peter Lampe puts bones on the contention that the monarchical bishop was a later development in Rome. He does the footwork to show just how this came about.

    Does McGuckin provide his sources for a statement such as this one: "For all Cyprian’s insistence on his right to single episcopal authority, his own church wavered greatly over whether he, or the assembled presbyters, or the confessors had the higher standing..."? How does he know this?

  10. There's nothing wrong with Brown's liberalism when debating Catholics. The Magisterium knew what Brown stood for. The Magisterium promoted him. If he's liberalism is a problem, then it's a problem for Catholics.

  11. John,

    McGuckin provides documentation for some of his comments, but not all of them. He doesn't provide any for the sentence you quoted.

    You may also be interested in my citations of other Eastern Orthodox scholars here. If you're looking for Roman Catholic scholars who acknowledge the early absence of a monarchical episcopate, many could be cited.

    J. Michael Miller thinks there was a variety of forms of church government early on: "the monarchical episcopacy was not a universal and normative ecclesial structure before the mid-second century" (The Shepherd And The Rock [Huntington, Indiana: Our Sunday Visitor, 1995], p. 61). He acknowledges that there may not have been a monarchical episcopate in Rome initially (pp. 61-62). He comments that "most scholars" think that Ignatius' view of the monarchical episcopate was a gradual development (p. 59). He concludes:

    "While admitting that the monarchical episcopate came about as the result of historical choices, Catholic doctrine holds that its emergence was guided by the Spirit." (p. 60)

    William La Due writes that "it is now quite generally accepted that the monarchical episcopate in Rome did not originate much before 140-150 A.D." (The Chair Of Saint Peter [Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1999], p. 26) He accepts that position himself.

    Robert Eno wrote:

    "Hermas was a farmer, an ex-slave who was a member of the Roman community who received what we would call visions and private revelations, most of which concern the problem of sin in the Church and the issue of public penance. What is of interest here are the incidental remarks which mention the leaders of the Christian community in Rome. These leaders are usually referred to by such vague titles as 'the leaders' (e.g., Vision II.2.6; III.9.7). Sometimes they are called elders as 'the elders who are in charge of the Church' (Vis. II.4.3). It is significant to note that these references are all in the plural. In other places, bishops are mentioned (again in the plural); they are usually linked with others, e.g., bishops, teachers and deacons (Vis. III.5.1)...This evidence (Clement, Hermas, Ignatius) points us in the direction of assuming that in the first century and into the second, there was no bishop of Rome in the usual sense given to that title. The office of the single mon-episkopos was slowly emerging in the local Christian communities around the Mediterranean world. Men like Ignatius were strongly urging this development. But the evidence seems to indicate that in the earliest decades, this evolution had not yet been accomplished in Rome. This then is that missing link referred to by Rudolf Pesch. If there were no bishop of Rome, in what sense can one speak of a Petrine succession?" (The Rise Of The Papacy [Wilmington, Delaware: Michael Glazier, 1990], pp. 27-29)

  12. Steve, you said, "then it's a problem for Catholics."

    Jason -- I was aware of Eno, and I even have a copy of his book, but hadn't thought about it for some time. (I wasn't aware of some of the other sources you provided. Thank you).

    As it turns out, Robert Eno is "Robert Eno, S.S." -- that "S.S." stands for "Society of Sulpicians."

    I know that S.J. stands for Society of Jesus -- the Jesuits. I've posted a few things about the Sulpicians at De Regnis Duobus, and Steve, you are right, it is a problem for Catholics. Raymond Brown was one of these Sulpicians, and of course, Robert Eno, "Rise of the Papacy," is one too.

    The mission of the Sulpician order is to train priests, not just by serving as instructors, but as mentors, actually living in and among the seminarians.

    Eno's book happens to cite Lampe very approvingly, and is it was actually re-printed in 2008.

    My comments about this appear here:

    Steve, as you know, I have been arguing about Lampe for months with these people. As it turns out, Lampe is being taught in Catholic seminaries.

    I don't think the dullest one at DRD can miss the implication of that. It will be interesting to see the follow-up discussion to this little factoid.