Tuesday, March 17, 2009

I was a teenage werewolf

This post is a mopping up operation. It will complete my projected review of Bart Ehrman’s new book, Jesus Interrupted. I don’t plan to review the whole thing. Just enough to convey what’s wrong with it.

Darrell Bock is also reviewing his book. And I hope other scholars like Craig Blomberg will weigh in as well. I’m just a pitch-hitter.

Reading Ehrman is like watching one of those B-film horror flicks of the I was a teenage werewolf variety that kids in the 50s used to see at drive-in movie theaters. You know from one scene to the next exactly what’s going to happen. Stock villains. Predictable plot. Corny dialogue. It’s not even bad enough to be good.

“There are other books that did not make it into the Bible that at one time or another were considered canonical–other Gospels, for example, allegedly written by Jesus’ followers Peter, Thomas, and Mary” (5).

Really? What church or churches regarded these apocrypha gospels as canonical scripture? And what’s the timeframe?

“The Exodus probably did not happen as described in the Old Testament. The conquest of the Promised Land is probably based on legend” (5-6).

These are assertions in search of arguments. Various scholars like Kitchen, Hoffmeier, and Younger have argued to the contrary.

“Genesis 1 is very different from the account in Genesis 2…the two chapters use different names for God…Are the animals created before humans, as in chapter 1, or after, as in chapter 2?”

i) That’s because Gen 1 is a global creation account whereas Gen 2 is a local creation account. Gen 1 describes the creation of everything in general whereas Gen 2 is specifically concerned with the creation of man and his immediate environment (the Garden).

ii) This also reflects a standard compositional technique: “Synoptic/resumption-expansion. A Hebrew author will at times tell the whole story in brief form (synopsis), then repeat the story (resumption), adding greater detail (expansion).”


“If ‘light’ was created on the first day of creation in Genesis 1, how is it that the sun, moon, and stars were not created until the fourth day? Where was the light coming form, if not the sun, moon, and stars? And how could there be an ‘evening and morning’ on each of the first three days if there was not sun?” (9-10).

That’s a good exegetical question, and I could to an entire post in answer to that question. For now, though, I’ll simply point out that the narrator was hardly oblivious to the fact that light normally comes from natural luminaries like the sun and moon. After all, the narrator lived long before the invention of the light bulb.

“When Noah takes the animals on the ark, does he take seven pairs of all the ‘clean’ animals, as Genesis 7:2 states, or just two pairs, as Genesis 7:9-10 indicates?” (10).

i) This is another example of the synoptic/resumptive-expansive technique (see above). “In typical Semitic style, the summary injunction to take pairs of animals into the ark is now developed by the more specific injunction to take seven pairs of clean animals,” B. Waltke, Genesis (Zondervan 2001), 137-138.

“In the Book of Exodus, God tells Moses, ‘I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as God Almighty, but by my name ‘The Lord’ [=Yahweh] I did not make myself known to them’ (Exodus 6:3). How does this square with what is found earlier, in Genesis [15:7]?” (10).

It’s the difference between promise and fulfillment, knowledge by description and knowledge by acquaintance. Yes, God revealed his name (Yahweh) to the patriarchs, but that was in the form of covenantal promises. Now, as he is about to deliver the Israelites in fidelity to the Abrahamic covenant, the Israelites will actually experience Yahweh in the context of fulfillment.

“The fifth plague was a pestilence that killed ‘all of the livestock of the Egyptians’ (Exodus 9:5). How is it, then, that a few days later the seventh plague, of hail, was to destroy all of the Egyptian livestock in the fields (Exodus 9:21-22)? What livestock?” (10).

But as one scholar explains, “The Hebrew word kol, usually translated ‘all,’ can mean ‘all sorts of’ or ‘from all over’ or ‘all over the place.’” D. Stuart, Exodus (Broadman 2006), 223-24.

“Are we really to think of God as someone who orders the wholesale massacre of an entire city?” (10).

i) From a moral standpoint, it ultimately makes no difference whether or not God ordered it. The mere fact that it happened must mean that, at some level, God willed it to happen. That God had a purpose for that outcome. Therefore, adding an explicit divine command doesn’t change the morality of the transaction.

ii) If sinners deserve to die, God does no wrong by having them executed.

“Or what is one to make of Psalm 137…Knocking the brains out of the Babylonian babies in retaliation for what their father-soldiers did? Is this in the Bible?” (10-11).

i) What we’re to make of Ps 137 is, at a minimum, that Scripture records the bitter, grief-stricken outburst of a Jewish exile. Why does Ehrman think that inspiration is incompatible with recording a range of sentiments expressed by various speakers? Should Scripture only record the nice things that people think, do, and say? Wouldn’t that make Scripture a very unrealistic book? Presenting an airbrushed version of human experience?

There are people like the Psalmist who, under extreme duress and provocation, really feel that way. They understandably lash out at those who hurt them. Why is Scripture not allowed to even record their feelings?

ii) Does Ehrman think that Scripture automatically approves of everything it records? That’s obviously not the case.

“The God of vengeance is found not only in the Old Testament, as some Christians have tried to claim. Even in the New Testament God is a God of judgment and wrath, as any reader of the book of Revelation knows” (11).

Ehrman states this as if it were a bad thing. He doesn’t even feel the need to explain why that’s a bad thing. He treats this as self-evidently wrong. But why?

There are banana republics in which all the judges are on the take. Drug-lords murder and plunder the populace with impunity. They are answerable to no one.

Does Ehrman think that’s a good thing? What is wrong with a God who will exact vengeance on the wicked? Isn’t that what we expect a just judge to do?

“The Lake of Fire is stoked up and ready for everyone who is opposed to God. This will involve eternal burning–an everlasting punishment, even for those who have sinned against God, intermittently, say, for twenty years. Twenty trillion years of torment in exchange for twenty years of wrong living, and that’s only the beginning. Is this really worthy of God” (11).

i) First of all, this objection gets carried away with the figurative imagery.

ii) The ironic thing about someone like Ehrman is that he’s so moralistic and morally shallow at the same time. What makes him think the duration of sin ought to have any intrinsic bearing on the duration of punishment? Suppose one man is a shoplifter for 20 years while another man is a serial-killer for 20 years. Since they committed their respective crimes for the same amount of time, do they merit the same punishment?

iii) The reason that sinners sin for a finite amount of time in this life is because they die. Mortality limits their earthly career in sinning. But suppose they were immortal. Suppose they never died. In that event, they’d keep on sinning indefinitely–whether they lived to be 100 or a 1000 or a 1,000,000 years old. So what difference does it make? Death marks a cut-off point for their sinful lifestyle, here-below, but not for their sinful disposition. Were their life extended, they would continue to sin. Sin continuously for as long as they live.

iv) At it’s not as if they cease to sin once they die. They continue to sin in hell.

v) Suppose the damned spend eternity tormenting each other. How is that unjust? What is wrong with letting bad people do bad things to each other?

It’s not the place that makes hell hellish, but the hellish inhabitants.

“The authors of Job and Ecclesiastes explicitly state that there is no afterlife” (12).

To the contrary:

i) ”Qoheleth’s view of the postmortem state can be summarized by contrasting what he sees under the sun with what he knows in his heart. Under the sun human beings share the same fate as animals: both die, cease to breathe, and go to the same place (i.e. the dust), with no assurance that the fate of their spirits differs (3:19-21). In his heart, however, Qoheleth knows that God will bring to judgment both the righteous and the wicked (3:17; 11:9), and that the human spirit returns to God who gave it (12:7). The epilogist agrees and argues that people should guide their lives in light of ultimately justice,” B. Waltke, An Old Testament Theology (Zondervan 2007), 964-965.

“The tension between those texts that represent death as annihilation and others as a state from which all will be raised–the righteous to everlasting life and the wicked to everlasting shame–can be resolved in the same way the similar tension in Ecclesiastes between futility under the sun and hope is resolved: by distinguishing between what can be known by sight and by faith. Texts that refer to annihilation depict the visible phenomenon that the dead cease to exist in the land of the living and are annihilated, and texts that refer to the final judgment beyond are faith statements,” ibid. 968-969.”

ii) Ehrman should also read Elmer Smick’s commentary on Job 19:25-27.

“For me, it started making less and less sense to think that God had inspired the very words of the text if we didn’t actually have these words, if the texts had in fact been changed, in many thousands of places, most of the changes insignificant but many of the of real importance. If God wanted us to have his words, why didn’t he preserve his words?” (16).

Of course, Ehrman couldn’t even begin attack the inerrancy of Scripture unless the text were fairly secure. If he’s just attacking scribal errors, rather than the original text, then that hardly impugns the inerrancy of Scripture.

“There is no much senseless pain and misery in the world that I came to find it impossible to believe that there is good and loving God who is in control, despite my knowing all the standard rejoinders that people give” (17).

i) How does he know the pain and misery is senseless? He’s like a character in one chapter of a Russian novel.

ii) He shows no evidence of knowing all the standard rejoinders.

iii) Moreover, he’s too dimwitted to realize that atheism has no basis for morality. Even a number of secular thinkers candidly admit as much. There can be no problem of evil, much less argument from evil, if there is no evil

“It is an extremely well-documented phenomenon that people sometimes have visions of their loved ones after they died. A man sees his wife in his bedroom a month after she was buried; a woman sees her dead daughter; a girl sees her dead grandmother. Happens all the time. It is extremely we documented. In many instances the person having this experience can talk to the dead person, can give them a hug and feel them” (178).

i) The only evidence that Ehrman cites for this sweeping claim is a book by Dale Allison. Unfortunately for Ehrman, I happen to own that book. This is what Allison actually says: “Typical encounters with the recently deceased do not issue in claims about an empty tomb, nor do they lead to the founding of a new religion. And they certainly cannot explain the specific context of the words attributed to the risen Jesus. Apparitions do not, furthermore, typically eat or drink, and they are not seen by crowds of up to five hundred people,” Resurrecting Jesus (T&T Clark 2005), 283.

ii) Some Bible scholars think the intermediate state involves immediate resurrection. That’s debatable, but if it were true, then “tangible” apparitions of the dead (assuming there is such a thing) would not count as evidence against the bodily resurrection of Christ.

iii) Gary Habermas had done a lot of research on visions and apparitions, including a review of Allison’s book. As usual, Ehrman ignores evidence that’s inconvenient for his position:



iv) The Bible itself reports on visions and apparitions of the dead. Yet it distinguishes between visionary/ghostly phenomena and resurrection phenomena.

“There are documented instances of multiple people having some such visionary experience together, and not just visions of relatives. The blessed Virgin Mary appears to groups of people all the time–there are thousands of eyewitnesses” (178).

From these vague, elliptical references, I don’t have a lot of confidence that Ehrman has done much personal research on the subject.

“Maybe these things happened. But it is unlikely. In fact, from the historian’s point of view, it is virtually impossible” (178).

So it “happens all the time,” but it’s “virtually impossible.”

“If the very notion that Jesus is coming back down assumes that there is an ‘up’–what does one do with that idea in a universe such as ours where there is, literally, no up and down, except in relation to where you happen to be standing at the moment” (281).

i) But that’s exactly how Acts 1 describes the Ascension. From a local frame of reference.

ii) Moreover, Jesus didn’t keep going up, up, up until he disappeared from view or entered the Empyrean. Rather, he levitated to a certain point before the Shekinah enveloped him.

Finally, I think it’s instructive to compare Ehrman’s view of NT history with the view of his mentor, Bruce Metzger. Metzger was famous for his scholarship, Ehrman is famous for his apostasy. Put another way, Ehrman is famous for being infamous. Just compare his approach to NT history with the approach of a real scholar like Metzger:

There were several circumstances that tended to prevent the free invention of Gospel traditions. One was the presence of original eyewitnesses (Luke 1:2), who would have acted as a check upon wholesale distortion of Jesus’ words and works. Another was the rabbinical method of teaching that Jesus seems at times to have employed when impressing his message upon the memory of his disciples, thus guaranteeing a high degree of fidelity in its transmission.

A consideration of the actual state of the evidence will lead one to the conclusion that there was no large-scale introduction of extraneous materials into the Gospels…The total absence of parables in the teaching of the apostles, as reported in the book of Acts and the twenty-one Letters of the New Testament, indicates that, so far from their being the creation of the early church, the Gospel parables reflect the authentic teaching method and message of Jesus.

A simple test can be made to determine the extent to which extraneous materials have been taken into the gospels. One of the most influential figures in the early church was the apostle Paul. His Letters, which date from the time when many of the Gospel traditions were taking shape, abound in pithy sentences and spiritual insights that could easily have been transferred to Jesus and presented as oracles of the Lord. If it be asked how many times this has happened, the answer must be Not once!

Furthermore, it is noteworthy that Jesus’ followers felt obliged to transmit his sayings even though some were not understood at the time and others became increasingly embarrassing to the church…The early church could have allowed such sayings to fall into oblivion, yet these and others have been faithfully preserved despite strong pressures to modify or forget them.

It is also necessary that the historian have access to reliable source material. What were the sources, both written and oral, available to Luke? The following have been suggested, with more or less probability, as sources lying behind the book of Acts.

(1) In three sections of Acts (16:10-17; 20:5-21:18; and 27:1-28:16) the author changes his style from the third person (“he,” “him,” “they,” “them”) to the first person plural (“we,” “our,” “us”) These “we” passages give the impression that the author was present and participated in the events that he describes. It may be that in these passages, which contain a wealth of details, Luke utilized notes that he had taken in diary form. If this is so, the “we” passages rest upon written sources drawn up by an eyewitness.
(2) At Antioch a copy of the decrees of the apostolic council (Acts 21:25) may have been available to Luke.
(3) It is not improbable that there were written archives in the possession of the church at Jerusalem that Luke would have been able to consult.
The “we” sections provide evidence of the author’s presence in a variety of places and in company with various persons, from whom he could have secured additional information for his history of the church. Among the possible oral sources that have been suggested are the following:
(4) While living at Antioch Luke may have received information concerning the Herodian dynasty from Manaen (Acts 13:1), an Antiochian Christian who was a member of the court of Herod the tetrach. In this way one could account for the fact that among the four Gospels the one by Luke contains the most detailed information about the Herodian family.
(5) Luke’s intimate acquaintance with Paul would have enabled him to secure information concerning the earlier life and work of the apostle before they became companions.
(6) At Caesarea Luke stayed at the home of Philip the evangelist (Acts 21:8), from whom he could have learned about events that led to the appointment of the Seven (Acts 6:1-6), as well as Philip’s experience with the Ethiopian official (8:26-40).
(7) In Acts 21:6 reference is made to the author’s lodging with a certain “Manason of Cyprus, an early disciple.” It is possible that Luke learned from him concerning affairs of the church in Cyprus which, so far as we know, Luke never visited.
(8) While in Jerusalem, Luke would have had opportunity to consult with James, from whom he may have learned about the apostolic council (Acts 15:1-29) and other events in Judea of importance concerning the growing church.
(9) Finally, from remarks made by Paul at the close of several of his letters (e.g. Colossians and Philemon), it appears that Silas and Timothy were with Paul when Luke was also present. From these and other leaders of the early church Luke would have had opportunity to glean further information.

B. Metzger, The New Testament: Its Background, Growth, and Content (Abingdon 2003), 103-106,199-200.


  1. Steve,

    What's your opinion of Waltke's take on the intermediate state?

  2. I think he has a conventional view of the intermediate state. He's drawing a distinction between the phenomenology of death, as viewed by the living, by the survivors, and what happens behind the scenes.

  3. Ehrman errs regarding the creation of light. Even under the Big Bang cosmology, light is created before the stars are created, at about 300,000 years after the Bang. So the Bible is consistent with the current reigning paradigm regarding the development of the universe.

    FYI, I discovered this with a 2 minute Google search on "Big Bang and the creation of light".

  4. I was refering specifically to his comments in the Appendix that he attached to his chapter on Ecclesiastes. In it, he states that Sheol simply refers to the physical grave rather than the nether-world and thus the OT never speaks about the intermediate state but only of resurrection. According to him, it was not until the NT that the intermediate state is mentioned.

  5. S&S,

    This article might be of interest to you:


  6. Isn't Ehrman a NT scholar? Why is he using such high-school level OT "contradictions" to establish his case?

    7 pairs of animals versus 2? I worked through those issues when I was in high school with a Ba'hai teaching me a worldviews class (aka. "Why Christians are imbeciles")

    I mean, the guy's fluent in Greek and is a textual critic; you'd think he'd be able to throw down some much more difficult NT "contradictions" that necessitate a knowledge of Greek and are beyond the refutational reach of most typical janitors (like me...lol!).

  7. Grifman said:
    Even under the Big Bang cosmology, light is created before the stars are created, at about 300,000 years after the Bang.

    Just to be fair, that would be "visible light" :-) But lots of light exists outside the visible spectrum (ultraviolet, infrared, xrays, etc.).

    In any case, it also reminds me...you know the pictures that NASA has released of cosmic microwave background radiation? Did ya know that using that picture, it's impossible to tell what part is the "varients" in CMB and which part is interference from the electronics used in the satellite itself? So what you're looking at may, or may not, be CMB but rather interference. The reason it's claimed as proof is simply because the amount of variance doesn't fit what could be ascribed solely to interference, so the left-over part must, of course, be evidence of the Big Bang.

    BTW, I have no problem with that explanation; I just wish they'd be honest and admit that the picture of CMB isn't.