Monday, March 16, 2009

The hidden contradictions of Ehrman

I’m continuing my review of Bart Ehrman’s new book, Jesus Interrupted (HarperOne 2009). Now I’ll examine some the errors he imputes to the NT. In a subsequent post, I’ll examine some of the errors he imputes to the OT.

Ehrman is banking on the fact that the average reader doesn’t have access to good commentaries and other reference works. His presentation is deliberately one-sided. Also, the natural constituency for his material are fellow unbelievers. Because he’s pandering to a sympathetic audience, he thinks he can get away with deception–and, to some extent–he’s right.

For several reasons, I’m not going to discuss every single example. For one thing, life is short. I have other projects. Furthermore, I already discussed some of his stock objection in This Joyful Eastertide. Finally, there’s nothing he mentions that a good commentary wouldn’t address.

But I’m going to examine some representative examples to illustrate how untrustworthy he is in presenting the evidence.

The Infancy of Jesus

“A careful comparison of the two accounts [in Matthew & Luke] also shows internal discrepancies…The wise men, who are following a star (presumably it took some time) come to worship Jesus in his house in Bethlehem… Joseph and Mary are still living in Bethlehem months or even a year or more after the birth of Jesus. So how can Luke be right when he says that they are from Nazareth and returned there just a month or so after Jesus’ birth?” (34).

Matthew doesn’t say they were “still” living in Bethlehem, as if they were living there continuously.

“In Matthew’s account they are not originally from Nazareth but from Bethlehem.”

Matthew doesn’t say where they’re “originally” from. Moreover, it would hardly be surprising if Mary’s hometown was different from Joseph’s. They’re husband and wife, not brother and sister.

“Even more obvious, though, is the discrepancy involved with the events after Jesus’ birth. If Matthew is right that the family escaped to Egypt, how can Luke be right that they returned directly to Nazareth?” (34).

Because the flight to Egypt occurred some time after the return to Nazareth.

The Cleansing of the Temple

“The Gospel of Mark indicates that it was in the last week of his life that Jesus ‘cleansed the Temple’…whereas according to John this happened at the very beginning of his ministry (John 2). Some readers have thought that Jesus must have cleansed the Temple twice, once at the beginning of his ministry and once at the end. But that would mean that neither Mark nor John tells the ‘true’ story, since in both accounts he cleanses the temple only once” (7).

i) It's possible that Jesus did it twice. As an omnipotent being, who's going to stop him from doing it a second time?

ii) There's a difference between the order in which John mentions an event and the order in which it happened. If John is dictating his oral history to a scribe, he may mention the cleansing of the temple because that's what he had on his mind on day particular day, when he was reminiscing about the ministry of Christ. Consider how older relatives recount incidents in their lives in no particular chronological order. So the sequence may simply reflect what was uppermost in John's mind on that day, and not a chronological claim.


Predictably, Ehrman also raises the musty canard about the timing of Peter’s denials. But as one commentator explains:
“Why then does Mark have the cock crowing twice, and later make a point of mentioning the crowings in his narrative at vv.72? The simplest explanation, particularly for those who take seriously the tradition that Peter was himself the source of much of the material in Mark’s gospel, is that Mark preserves the account in its fullest and most detailed form (as Peter himself would have remembered and repeated it), but that the double cockcrow was omitted as an unnecessary additional detail in the other accounts. There is after all nothing improbable in a repeated crowing: even a single cock would be unlikely to crow once and then stop, and if there were others in the neighborhood they would take it up,” R. France, The Gospel of Mark (Eerdmans 2002), 579.

In this same connection, Ehrman exclaims that,
“In order to resolve the tension between the Gospels the interpreter has to write his own Gospel, which is unlike any of the Gospels founding the New Testament. And isn’t it a bit absurd to say that, in effect, only “my” Gospel–the one I create from parts of the four in the New Testament–is the right one, and the others are only partially right?” (7-8).

Once again, is Ehrman really that stupid? If he is asking us how one account relates to another, then, of course, we have to go beyond the confines of any one account to show how they’re interrelated. By definition, a relation involves two or more relata. And the harmonistic exercise is generated by his demand.

Two Angels?

Regarding the number of angels at the tomb, he says,

“Do they see a man, as Mark says, or two men (Luke), or an angel (Matthew)? This is normally reconciled by saying that the women actually saw ‘two angels.’…The problem is that this kind of reconciling again requires one to assert that what really happened is unlike what any of the Gospels say–since none of the three accounts states that the women saw ‘two angels’” (8).

i) In Scripture, angels often appear as men.

ii) The Bible sometimes uses stock numbers. Two may be a stock number.

iii) Angels appear and disappear at will. The fact that they are visible in the tomb at one point doesn't mean they are continuously present in the tomb.

iv) For that matter, our perception of angels may well be telepathic. Two observers could look in the same direction, one sees an angel while the other doesn't because the angel only projects himself into the mind of one observer.

How Many Signs?

Ehrman thinks there’s a discrepancy in the number of signs Jesus performed (Jn 2:11,23; 4:54). But as one commentator explains, “The reference to a ‘second sign’ here is to the second sign Jesus performed after he had come from Judea to Galilee,” A. Köstenberger, John (Baker 2004), 172.

Throughout his book, Ehrman does an excellent job, not of proving the Bible to be in error, but proving Ehrman to be in error.

The Farewell Discourse

Commenting on the apparent discrepancy between Jn 13:36, 14:5, and 16:5, Ehrman says “either Jesus had a very short attention span or there is something strange going on with the sources for these chapters, creating an odd kind of disconnect” (9).

But this is well-trodden ground in the exegetical literature. As one scholar explains,
“The alternative reading attempts to take account of the characterization of the disciples in the discourse as a whole. It notes that Jesus does not say ‘None of you has asked me’ but ‘None of you is asking me,’ thus drawing the readers’ attention to the difference between the present response of the disciples and their response at the beginning of the discourse. Their earlier superficial questioning has revealed a total lack of compression about the implications Jesus’ departure. Since the last question from a disciple, Jesus has given uninterrupted teaching from 14:23-16:4. As Jesus’ comment in v6 makes clear, now at least the disciples’ lack of questioning indicates a partial, if still very inadequate, understanding,” A. Lincoln, The Gospel According to Saint John (Continuum 2005), 418.

The Chronology of the Passion

Ehrman asserts a contradiction between Markan chronology and Johannine chronology on the timing of the Passion. There are harmonizations that Ehrman fails to tell the reader:

The Genealogies of Jesus

“The real problem they pose, however, is that the two genealogies are actually quite different” (37).
This objection assumes that there is only one way to reckon descent. But as one scholar points out, that’s a dubious assumption:

“Obviously, in a small and close-knit community, there is every probability that someone could trace their descent from the same source by two or more different routes. The Maori themselves can give several different genealogies for themselves, depending on which ancestor they want to highlight and how much intermarrying has taken place. Different tribal sub-units can trace their descent in different ways for different purposes, resulting in criss-crossing links of all sorts.”
“This is so even in modern Western society. After my own parents married, they discovered that they were distant cousins with one remove of generation. Think of the little country of Israel in the period between David and Jesus; similar things could easily have happened. Many could have traced their descent to the same ancestors by at least two routes,” Tom Wright, Luke for Everyone (WJK 2004), 39-40.

Ehrman has another complaint:

“The problem is that the fourteen-fourteen-fourteen schema doesn’t actually work…In the third set of fourteen there are in fact only thirteen generations. Moreover…It turns out that Matthew left out some names…” (38).

i) It’s true that his tabulation is selective. So what? This is not meant to be a pure genealogy. Rather, it’s an exercise in gematria. So we’d expect the arrangement to be somewhat stylized. Matthew is writing to Jews, using Jewish conventions.

ii) As to the alleged numerical discrepancy, there are at least two explanations:

a) ”In this statement [v11] the genealogist needs to evoke the end of the David kingship, with the collapse of the nation and exile…How can all this be evoked? We recall that in Septuagintal usage the grandson of Josiah is called either ‘Jechoniah’ or ‘Jehoiakim,’ in the latter sense using the same name as for the father…In the statement, ‘Jechoniah’ is first and foremost himself, but secondarily a cipher for the father with whom he shares a name.”
”The third fourteen takes us from Jechoniah to Jesus, and are achieved by counting both Jechoniah and Jesus. The genealogist probably does not consider this to be double counting because in counting Jechoniah in the second fourteen, he really had in mind Jehoiakim; this leaves Jechoniah actually to be counted in his own right in the third fourteen,” J. Nolland, The Gospel of Matthew (Eerdmans 2006), 84-86.
b) ”Matthew's numerically structured genealogy parallels this arbitrary schematization of Israel's history. Moreover, the supposed discrepancy between the statement of verse 17 that there are fourteen generations from the Babylonian deportation to the Messiah and the actual number thirteen names listed in the table is resolved by it. Indeed, it is in the third division of the genealogy that the scheme of twelve plus two or fourteen has its real application. That is, there are twelve ancestors and Jesus the Messiah who, in contrast to all the other individuals in the family tree is to be counted twice. He represents two generations, not consecutively, but simultaneously from the beginning of his life.”

“His birth marks the end of the age of exile…He is ‘the king of the Jews’ who draws the Magi from the east, and "they rejoice with exceeding great joy’ when they arrive at his home in Bethlehem in order to pay him homage. But his birth also elicits the dreadful response of Herod the Great who dispatches his soldiers to slaughter all the infant boys in Bethlehem and the surrounding regions. Jesus as the sole survivor of this massacre becomes the bearer of this holocaust character and will embody its judgment at the end of his life when this sequence of the new age and death will be reversed…Because Jesus' life is the ground on which the consummating events of history occur, he is the bearer of two generations. His death not only relates him to the thirteenth episode in the scheme of the Messiah Apocalypse; the resurrection of the saints effected by the emission of his final divine breath of life (27:50), links him to the fourteenth, the beginning of a new time.”

Because Ehrman always assumes that Scripture must be wrong, he makes no effort to understand it. As such, we’re treated to a steady stream of superficial objections. Real scholars try to understand what the writer is saying.

The Baptism of Christ

“Mark especially is quite clear about the matter, for he states, after telling of the baptism, that Jesus left ‘immediately’ for the wilderness…In John…the day after John the Baptist borne witness to the Spirit descending on Jesus as a dove at baptism (John 1:29-34), he sees Jesus again…(John is quite explicit, stating that this occurred ‘the next day’)” (40-41).

But “immediately” (Gr.=euthus] is just a stylistic feature of Markan syntax–occurring some 40 times in his Gospel. In Markan usage it doesn’t generally carry any special temporal significance. Most of the time it functions “merely [as] a connective conjunction,” N. Turner, Grammar of New Testament Greek, vol. III (T&T Clark 1980), 229. Doesn’t Ehrman know Greek?

The Census of Quirinius

“The historical problems with Luke are even more pronounced. For one thing, we have relatively good records for the reign of Caesar Augustus, and there is no mention anywhere in any of them of an empire-wide census for which everyone had to register by returning to their ancestral homes…If the Gospels are right that Jesus’ birth occurred during Herod’s reign, then Luke cannot also be right that it happened when Quirinius was the governor of Syria. We know from a range of other historical sources, including the Roman historian Tacitus, the Jewish historian Josephus, and several ancient inscriptions, that Quirinius did not become governor of Syria until 6CE, ten years after the death of Herod” (32-34).
i) Josephus may simply be wrong:

ii) Luke's statement may be hyperbolic. Hyperbole is a deliberate overstatement for rhetorical effect. The Bible often resorts to hyperbole. For example, “Then the earth reeled and rocked; the foundations also of the mountains trembled and quaked, because he was angry” (Ps 18:7).

Luke is fond of hyperbole, as Robert Stein has documented in his commentary on the Gospel of Luke. If Lk 2:1-2 is hyperbolic, then all this means is that Luke is telescoping a number of events in time and place as if they all took place at one time.

Hyperbole is not an error. It would only be erroneous if the author intended to be strictly accurate. Hyperbole is a standard rhetorical device. Luke’s original audience would appreciate that fact. Ehrman is simply tone-deaf to Luke’s literary conventions.

The Death of Judas

“Luke wrote a second volume to accompany his Gospel, the Book of Acts. Acts gives an account of what happened to Judas after the betrayal, as does the Gospel of Matthew, but it is striking that the two accounts stand directly at odds with each other on a number of points…the two reports give different accounts of how Judas died…And they are flat out contradictory on two other points: how purchased the field (the priests, as per Matthew, or Judas, as per Acts?) and why the field was called the field of blood (because it was purchased with blood money, as Matthew says, or because Jesus bled all over it, as Acts says?)” (46-47).
i) There are striking differences in how Matthew and Acts report this event. But even in that respect, it's equally striking that both accounts say the death of Judas occurred at the same place (the "Field of Blood"). If, however, these are independent legends, then how do you explain that parallel? It only makes sense if both accounts have a common source in a common event. Judas did indeed die at that location. 

ii) The description of events in biblical narration is generally quite sketchy, so there are many variations on how to visualize the an event happened. 

iii) Suppose Judas hanged himself on the branch of a tree on the ridge of a hill. There's nothing unrealistic about that scenario. 

Suppose, in addition, Judas didn't simply fall from the tree. Suppose the rope didn't break from the weight. Rather, what if the body was pulled down. 

By what, you ask? What about scavenger dogs? It's not unrealistic to posit scavenger dogs. We know they exist. Packs of dogs on the prowl for carrion. That happens. 

If the dogs got on their hind legs, perhaps supported by the tree trunk or the corpse, grabbed the corpse by the armpit, and kept tugging, and if that dislodged the corpse, the corpse wouldn't just fall down but fall over. It wouldn't fall feetfirst but headfirst. For the very act of pulling it down would reposition the corpse. 

(Incidentally, I once saw a nature show in which photographers hung meat from a branch to photograph the reaction of lions. The lions were very persistent in attempting to pull the meat down.) 

The only remaining question is if it falls headfirst, does it land headfirst? I'm no expert, but when we watch swimmers highdive (10 meters), they dive headfirst and land headfirst. Their body doesn't change position in mid-fall. 

From what I can tell, there's nothing unrealistic about my harmonization. These are things that naturally happen.

iv) Suppose you have a corpse that falls from a hilltop. The slope of a hill means that it's narrower on top but spreads out further down. Depending on the slope, a body could tumble down a hill. It's in one position when it begins the descent, but rolls over and over, picking up speed on the way down. It's in a different position when it reaches bottom.

v) Or a corpse might begin the descent feetfirst in freefall for several yards, then strike the side of the hill one or more times. Bouncing off the hillside repositions the body. 

vi) Matthew doesn't say where Judas hanged himself. Acts doesn't say where Judas hanged himself. It indicates where he landed. All it says (in Greek) is that:

He acquired a field from the reward of unrighteousness, and falling headlong he burst open in the middle and all his guts spilled out. 

He may well have hanged himself in a different location above the Field of Blood, then his falling corpse landed in the Field of Blood. For instance, Mount Olivet has an elevation of 2684 feet while the adjacent peak (Mount Scopus) has an elevation of 2710 feet. If, say, he hanged himself on the branch of an olive tree high on the hillside of Mount Olivet, it's easy to imagine the falling body splattering over the field when it hit the ground. 

It's possible that the tree was dislodged by seismic activity (Mt 27:5128:2). 

There's nothing ingenious about these explanations. They're realistic, commonplace scenarios. 

The Triumphal Entry

“When Jesus entered Jerusalem during the Triumphal Entry, how many animals did he ride?” (50).

i) To begin with, the syntax is ambiguous:
“Addition of the prefix leads to a change of Mark’s επ αυτον, ‘on him,’ to επανω αυτων, ‘on top of them,’ which probably refers to the saddle garments rather than to the animals…It is doubtful that he intends his readers to visualize a trick rider balancing himself on two animals at the same time. Therefore we are to think that the garments were draped over both animals, just as in modern Palestine both mother donkeys and their unridden colts trotting after them have garments put across their backs…Though Jesus sat on top of the garments only on the colt, the association of the garmented mother makes a kind of wider throne,” R. Gundry, Matthew (Eerdmans 1994), 410.

ii) Moreover, even if we think the second auton refers to the animals, it’s pedantic to assume that Matthew took this literally: “it hardly means that the evangelist alleges that Jesus actually sat upon both animals at once (!) or even in succession. Instead it means that here the two animals, which were kept so closely together, are conceptually regarded as a single, inseparable unit,” D. Hagner, Matthew 14-28 (Nelson 1995), 595.

The Thirty Pieces of Silver

“When Matthew indicates that Judas betrayed Jesus for thirty piece of silver, he notes (as we now expect of him) that this was spoken in fulfillment of Scripture…The problem is that this prophecy is not found in Jeremiah. It appears to be a loose quotation of Zechariah 11:3)” (51).

But as one commentator explains,
“This is not, however, a simple quotation of a single text, but a mosaic of scriptural motifs, some of which do in fact come from Jeremiah (see below). Like the combined quotation of Mark 1:2-3, it is attributed to the better known of the prophets concerned, even though its opening words are from the minor prophet. As a ‘quotation’ about a potter’s field it was naturally associated with Jeremiah as the prophet most memorably associated with potters and with the buying of a field. Note that Matthew’s attributed quotations name only the major prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah…together with one specific allusion to Daniel (24:15), while formal quotations drawn from the minor prophets are elsewhere left anonymous,” R. France, The Gospel of Matthew (Eerdmans 2007), 1042-1043.
“Some interpreters are content to consider ‘Jeremiah” in Mt 27:9 a simple mistake, indicating limited access to scriptural texts on the part of Matthew. But the series of links with texts in Jeremiah which we have been exploring count strongly against this view. Matthew has other quotations that merge texts: Mt 2:5-6 merges Mi 5:1 with 2 Sa 5:2; Mt 21:4-5 merges Is 62:11 and Zc 9:9,” J. Nolland, The Gospel of Matthew (Eerdmans 2005), 1156n322.
“Given his ability to retranslate the entire Hebrew text based on revocalization…it is unlikely that Matthew simply got his attribution wrong,” C. Keener, A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew (Eerdmans 1999), 657n140.

Throughout these objections, Ehrman thinks he’s being oh-so clever when he merely exposes himself as shallow, ignorant, and obtuse.

The Lucan Paul

Ehrman also plays up alleged discrepancies between Acts and the Pauline epistles on the life of Paul.

To correlate one man’s writing with another man’s writing is obviously a complicated business. There are entire books that defend the Lucan Paul. From reading Ehrman, the uninitiated would never know that this material even exists. For example:

Hemer, C. The Book of Acts in the Setting of Hellenistic History (Eisenbrauns 1990)

Porter, S. Paul in Acts (Hendrickson 2001)

Riesner, R. Paul’s Early Period: Chronology, Mission Strategy, Theology (Eerdmans 1998).

Ehrman may be a competent textual critic, but when he strays from his field of expertise, he comes across a nothing more than big-name hack.

1 comment:

  1. steve i think you are indeed one of the most able defender of the Christian faith in this generation.