What do I think of Bart Ehrman’s latest book? Let’s talk about it on Deeper Waters.
There is an increasing pattern in Ehrman’s books. He is more and more hesitant to interact with that which disagrees with him and goes more on his own pronouncements or only the people who agree with him. I refer to this as an argument with just one-hand clapping. Naturally, if one is a scholar one can and should speak with one’s own authority and one should cite those who agree with you, but one should also have extended argument with those who disagree. No Ph.D. dissertation would be accepted without interacting with opposing views, yet Ehrman writes books where he does not deal with the best that disagrees with him.
Consider for instance that he asks the question about miracles and history on pages 147-8. Does he interact with Keener, who wrote the massive two-volume work “Miracles”? Not a bit. The reader who never knew about Keener will leave this work not knowing about Keener. He writes about the burial customs in Israel. Does he interact with someone like Craig Evans? No. Evans is never interacted with in the book. He writes about the idea of a spiritual body in 1 Cor. 15, but he never interacts with the work of Licona and Wright where both address this as an extended length. This is most revealing since he refers to both of these books for those who want to read a defense of the resurrection. His whole book is on Christology and yet, Hurtado and Hengel are barely mentioned. Bauckham is never once mentioned.
Ehrman also comes at this from a heavily fundamentalist standpoint. He has the view that if Jesus really thought that He was God, shouldn’t He have mentioned this?” Well, no. Not really. Had Jesus gone and done something explicit like that, it would have led to further confusion. What does He mean? Is He saying He is God the Father? After all, Jesus was often interacting with the common man and not the trained theologian, and even those would have a hard time with the concept, as we still do today.
The same happened with Jesus’s claims to be the Messiah. It is extremely rare that we see Jesus explicitly say that He is the Christ, and this is not before a public audience. He does actions however to show that this is how He sees Himself. These include actions such as the triumphant entry. Why would He go this way? Because had He come right out and said “I’m the Messiah” we would expect people would be ready to lead a revolt against Rome and not to be people who would be His disciples seeking to grow in holiness.
Ehrman also thinks something like the virgin birth should have been mentioned by other writers. Yet why should it? We consider it fascinating, but the ancients, especially Jews, not so much. For Jews, it would be close to paganism and it would in fact implicate YHWH in Mary being pregnant outside of marriage. That would also lead to charges of Jesus being illegitimate, not something you want to announce about your Messiah. David Instone-Brewer even includes the virgin birth in his book “The Jesus Scandals” as something the evangelists would prefer to avoid talking about. He also ignores that Mark is an inclusio account giving the testimony of Peter, who would not have been present for the virgin birth. As for John, well He has quite an exalted intro for Jesus already. It’s hard to think how a virgin birth could improve that.
This is a constant problem for Ehrman. He thinks everything needs to be mentioned explicitly, but why should it? In the synoptics, we are even told that Jesus did not speak plainly. He spoke in parables. He was giving a message that those who were true seekers would find it. Ehrman’s view relies on an approach of the Bible as a fax from Heaven that will spell out for us what we want to know. It is highly fundamentalist and shows Ehrman never got past his fundamentalist background that he grew up with.
For Christology, Ehrman never has prolonged interaction with the Shema. He does cite 1 Cor. 8:4-6, but you’d never see the connection with the Shema, the great statement of monotheism that shaped Jewish culture. The only extended argument he has is with Phil. 2:6-11. His main focal point to start off with is in fact Galatians 4:14. It’s an oddity that when Paul calls Christ “God” in Romans 9:5, Paul agrees, but thinks he doesn’t mean Jesus is ontologically God, despite later texts having the same implication in Romans 10. Thus, when Paul speaks most explicitly, Ehrman reinterprets it to suit his own viewpoint. When Jesus doesn’t speak explicitly, Ehrman asks why He didn’t do so.
As for church history, there is just as much absent. There is no extended argument with Irenaeus and Athenagoras for instance. Again, this is the constant flaw in Ehrman. He is extremely selective with what he cites. Now of course, one cannot cite everything, but one should cite the main figures.
It’s also tragic because of so much that Ehrman gets right. He is right that Jesus believed He was the Messiah. He is in fact right when He argues that Jesus said much that could get Him to be seen as the Wisdom of God. He is right that Jesus was an apocalyptic preacher. It is as if Ehrman is right on the edge but then wants to step back by just saying “Well He doesn’t say anything that is explicit!”
This is the sad aspect of it. Ehrman does know how to do scholarship and yet the ignoring of the best against him leaves one wondering why is this the case? IF Ehrman’s case is as strong as he thinks it is, why does he hesitate to point out those who disagree with him? Perhaps he should in fact mention them more explicitly than he normally does? (Odd for someone isn’t it who wants to hear truths expressed explicitly so much.) The tragedy will go both ways as there are too many atheists who read Ehrman as the last word just as there are too many Christians who read their side as the last word. Interact with both.
I have earlier written a review of “How God Became Jesus.” After reading Ehrman’s book, I do stand by that review. I encourage those wanting to study this issue to read both books.