What are my thoughts on Ehrman’s book “Jesus Interrupted?” Let’s talk about it on Deeper Waters.
Jesus Interrupted says that it’s about the hidden contradictions in the Bible with the added emphasis of “and why we don’t know about them.” Ehrman starts off early talking about how seminaries have to have “Baby Bible” exams where students are tested on their basic knowledge of the Bible. I remember such an exam. I had to take one when I entered Bible College. Ehrman is sadly right that most students are unprepared for this aside from a strong fundamentalist view which I believe Ehrman had.
Much of what Ehrman says at the start is not really disagreeable. In fact, it points to a great lack we have in really training our young people to know how to study the text. I say our young people since they’re the ones that normally leave and go off to college and hear this, but everyone in the church needs to know about this stuff.
For now, let’s go through the chapters starting with the second that gets into the substance matter.
Chapter 2- A World of Contradictions.
A noticeable aspect of this book is that Ehrman continues with the baby Bible talk as if many of his readers are unfamiliar with the stories of the Bible. Unfortunately, I also agree. Many readers will be atheists and skeptics who pick up the book not knowing a thing about the Bible, and walk away convinced. Ehrman only gives one side of the equation. He normally presents “contradictions” without pointing out that evangelical scholarship also has an answer to such.
I also will not say that every contradiction Ehrman presents is an open and shut case that is easily resolved. They aren’t all that way. Ehrman is wrong however to present this as if this is something new and the church for centuries has been unaware. On the contrary, the church has been entirely aware.
For instance, on pages 35-39, he points out the differences with the genealogies of Jesus. I do agree that this needs an answer, but this is not a new discovery. I believe the early church in fact had at least four different solutions for the problem and they did debate this. These people noticed what was going on in their books.
Ehrman also cites claims that aren’t really contradictions which is problematic. For instance, on page 32, he writes that no record exists of Herod ordering the execution of the children in Bethlehem. Why the New Testament record is sufficient itself is not given. After all, we do accept some claims in history with only one source. Why not what happened in Bethlehem? It’s not miraculous. It fits with the nature of Herod as well. Could it be that we have to be skeptical because it’s the Bible?
Yes. There’s actually a double-standard in studying the Bible.
Ehrman also has a problem with what is said at Jesus’s baptism. Do we agree that different gospels say different things? Yes. This is a problem only if you think the text had to be written to say exactly what was said instead of a paraphrase of what was said.
Finally, on page 50, Ehrman speaks about the triumphant entry and says that the disciples brought two animals, a donkey and a colt, and Jesus apparently rode in on both of them.
It’s hard to really take something like that seriously.
Let me put up the text as it is in the ESV:
“They brought the donkey and the colt and put on them their cloaks, and he sat on them.”
Other translations like the NIV and the NASB make it clearer, but let’s state something. For the sake of argument, Matthew could be wrong. It could be this event never happened. It is disingenuous to Matthew to make him into an idiot. Matthew certainly knew you can’t ride two animals at once. Let’s look at that sentence again.
Does anyone else see any noun there that is in the plural that could be the referent of “them.” I’ve got an idea. How about the disciples put the cloaks on the colt and Jesus sat on the cloaks that were on the colt. See? All you have to do is look up the text and it makes sense.
For many other contradictions, I suggest the reader go check some good commentaries. Another excellent site to go to is that of my ministry partner at Tektonics.org.
Chapter 3-We kind of have more of the same in this chapter. There are some helpful insights and keep this as a reminder to students. Reading the other side is not without some merit and it’s not just so you can expose their errors. They can teach you some things too.
However, there are problems again and I will use an example I found most fascinating, that of supposed differences between Paul and Matthew. Ehrman says on page 90 that Jews must keep the law if they are to be Christians. You must keep the least of these commandments in the law in order to be saved.
This is the same Matthew who in Matthew 15 has Jesus saying that what goes into a person’s mouth cannot defile that person. This would be seriously taboo under the Jewish Law as one could not eat certain foods. It was what came out of a person that made them unclean. Could it be that in reality, the problem is Ehrman’s interpretation of Matthew 5:17-20? Keep in mind Ehrman is a textual critic. That means he knows the languages of course, but it does not mean he is an authority on interpretation. That is a separate field.
Much of this will be familiar to readers who read my reviews of Forged here and here. Let’s go over a few basic points.
Ehrman makes much about the gospels being anonymous, not noting that the huge majority of books in the ancient world were anonymous. For skeptics, this is a code word indicating that the accounts are not reliable. Absent is any mention of why we believe we know who wrote the books.
Take Matthew for instance. Let’s suppose someone did not know who wrote this book in the early church and they start looking through a list of people in their short church history and the apostles and say “Hey! How about that guy Matthew? Let’s pick him!”
It might sound plausible at first, but why would you? Why not choose James or John or Peter who were part of the inner circle and more prominent? In fact, when one reads the gospels, one hardly even notices Matthew at all save for the scene of his calling. Why choose Matthew? If you wanted a name with strong authority, there were better ones to use.
Or could it be the church fathers paid attention to claims of authorship and had enough information from sources to believe it was indeed Matthew who wrote the book. In fact, if we were just picking authors, why would we have said Mark and Luke? Those are really no-names.
Ehrman gives no indication that any of this has taken place in church history nor does he mention the debates the church had. True, he mentions some church fathers, but Ehrman finds a point of disagreement and then is quick to throw out all of them. How much history would we have if the same was done with Plutarch, Pliny, and others?
Ehrman makes a point about how the Pastorals are forged since they were written in a later period when the church had deacons. However, the genuine letter of Philippians is addressed to deacons in the church as well and Romans 16 refers to a deaconess who delivered the letter. Why didn’t the same happen with 1 Corinthians? 1 Corinthians is likely an encyclical that went to that church first and then went on to other churches to give them guidelines in worship and doctrine.
Other claims just leave one puzzled. On page 113, Ehrman says the book of James was no doubt written by someone named James. What is the argument for this? None is given. What is the source? None given. If the books were anonymous, why think the claim of the church that it was written by James makes that certain, but not the same for, say, the Johannine epistles?
This deals with the trilemma of Lewis asking if Jesus was Lord, liar, or lunatic. In this, Ehrman deals with the beliefs that came up about Jesus. Early on, he says on page 145 that the gospels know about historical events like the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. (btw Ehrman, I don’t know of non-Christian sources besides Josephus that even mention the destruction. Maybe based on what was said about Herod, that never happened either.)
This is something that cannot be known from a literary study. It assumes that predictive prophecy is not possible. That’s no longer textual clues guiding the text but a metaphysical claim that one approaches prior. Now some of you might say “Well I don’t believe that can happen.” That’s fine, but the best thing to do is to say “I’m skeptical, but I am open so I will take a non-dogmatic approach.” You can say then you don’t believe it happens, but you are open. Anything wrong with that?
On pages 146-7, Ehrman compares the spreading of the accounts of Jesus to the telephone game children play. Scholars know this is a problematic claim. For one thing, when you play telephone, you cannot hear again what the other person said. They can’t repeat it. You can’t check back with them to see if you got it right. That’s what makes the game so much fun.
“Well of course! If you could have it repeated and checked back again then it’s quite likely there wouldn’t be confusion and the game wouldn’t be fun. The checking back makes it less likely mistakes will be transmitted.”
Wow. Don’t you think early Christians would do that also?
Ehrman gives no impression of that. He says nothing about oral transmission in those societies. He says nothing about scholarly studies. The skeptic is left without any idea of what scholarship of oral transmission has to say on the issue and is left with a view that bears no similarity to what happened in the ancient world.
To his credit, Ehrman does give some criteria for historical verification of claims and some readers will be benefited. A lot of mythicists, as we will see in our next chapter, would definitely be benefited if they took the time to study this kind of methodology.
Towards the end of the chapter, Ehrman handles the resurrection and his argument is basically that of Hume’s. His idea is that miracles are the least likely events to have happened, therefore they did not happen. We should always go for the most plausible.
No. We should always go where the evidence lies regardless of if we think it plausible or not.
Ehrman presents another scenario to explain the resurrection and it doesn’t do that. It just explains the empty tomb. It does not explain the claims of the apostles that they saw the resurrected Christ nor does it explain the conversion of Paul. What does Ehrman think about his scenario?
He himself says it is not likely at all and he is not proposing at all that that is what happened, but even though this is a claim that has zero evidence to back it, it is more probable than that a miracle happened.
Hence the great danger if a person will not believe the truth. They will believe in anything else.
Much of this is about Ehrman’s problem with not having the inspired words of the text handed down exactly. Apparently, for God to make sure His Scripture was handed down, God would have to be a micro-manager. Did Ehrman expect something like a lightning bolt to strike whenever someone wrote a wrong word frying them as a warning to others? He does not say how He thinks it should have happened. Does He think the NT should have just fallen from Heaven? If so, where? in what language? Should this have to be repeated regularly as cultures and languages change?
Ehrman makes a point that we don’t have the originals. Nor do we have the originals of any ancient work that I can think of. So what? This has never been a problem, but somehow when it becomes about the Bible, it is a problem. It’s the double-standard again.
Ehrman also makes much of the situation of how we got the canon that we have. There is a simple solution to his query. If someone wants to know why some gospels weren’t included, the simple way to find out is to actually sit down and read them. I’ve done it. If you don’t know why they weren’t included then, I can’t really help you.
In all of this of course, Ehrman is too quick to identify anyone as a Christian. Upon what basis? We are not told.
Ehrman also presents Bauer’s hypothesis about various groups having different Christianities that they had at the start and orthodoxy was the second position. Bauer’s position has been highly challenged since his time and even a critic like Robin Lane Fox finds it problematic.
Not much new here. Much is made about supposed anti-Judaism. Ehrman has written in this book about how some Christians even said the Jews were responsible for the destruction of the temple in 70 A.D. because they crucified the Messiah. This would be anti-semitism.
But why? What if I said that in World War 2 we fought against the Germans. Does that mean that all Germans for all time are automatically part of what happened at World War 2 and are held responsible? Not at all. Any Christian who wants to condemn all Jews for all time for what one generation did needs to be took aside as that is anti-semitism. The claim that Ehrman is against is not anti-semitic. It focuses on one generation of Jews in a particular time and place for one action, not because they are Jewish.
In fact, it seems many of Ehrman’s problems do stem from his eschatology. Is this an off-shoot of his fundamentalism? Quite likely. Ehrman can write about how we now know that you don’t go up to Heaven, for instance. Jesus is not literally coming back on clouds. The reality is the ancients knew that as well. Ehrman is putting an Enlightenment approach on the text and saying “Now we know that’s not how it is so they were wrong” when it is really the Enlightenment thinking that is wrong, the thinking Ehrman himself has inherited.
Finally, is faith possible? Ehrman is all for presenting scholarship to the people. So am I. For Ehrman, faith would have to be blind to the discrepancies. I don’t think so. Faith should instead wrestle with them and grow deeper. Ehrman to thinks it should, but only after one accepts the contradictions are irreconcilable.
In conclusion, I do not find Ehrman’s work in this regards persuasive, and it’s a shame not because I wanted to be persuaded, but because I expected much better. To his credit, he does have much to say about Christ mythers and we will cover that more when I review his book “Did Jesus Exist?”
That’s for another time. I think anyone interested in NT studies should read this book, but atheists who just read this do not have a real understanding of Scripture.