The Gospels "were written thirty-five to sixty-five years after Jesus' death by people who did not know him, did not see anything he did or hear anything that he taught, people who spoke a different language from his and lived in a different country from him." They are not disinterested accounts of what "really" happened, an impartial record of an infallible oral tradition. The anonymous authors were often biased "in light of their own theological understandings". Nor are the Gospels independent - "Mark was used as a source for Matthew and Luke" - and for many of the stories about Jesus there is no "corroboration without collaboration". And yet they are still "widely inconsistent, with discrepancies filling their pages, both contradictions in details and divergent large-scale understandings of who Jesus was."
Such a description of the Gospels is, unsurprisingly, "virtually unknown among the population at large" despite being routinely taught in the seminaries that train future priests. Bart Ehrman, who has read the Bible both as a believer and as a biblical scholar - using both the "devotional" and the "historical-critical" approaches - is committed to narrowing this gap in knowledge, and this is his latest brilliant contribution. He constantly reassures the reader that these "are not my own idiosyncratic views" and, given the sensitivities of some religious people, you can see why. Does a believer want to hear that the New Testament contains "forgeries" or that "the doctrines of the divinity of Christ and the Trinity" were not present in the earliest traditions of the New Testament? Can it be true that the Bible approves of knocking out the brains of Babylonian babies or that a "Lake of Fire is stoked up and ready for everyone who is opposed to God"?
Given how central he was to become to Western civilization, one of the most astonishing facts about the historical Jesus is how invisible he was to the ancient world. "He is never discussed, challenged, attacked, maligned, or talked about in any way in any surviving pagan source of the period" and when Josephus discusses Jesus, "it appears that a Christian scribe made a few choice insertions, in order to clarify who Jesus really was."
The Gospels are therefore our main source of information about Jesus, and, while believers grapple with their own personal responses to the text, a historian encounters a series of familiar problems, the first being the lack of original manuscripts. (See Ehrman's Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why
for a fuller treatment.) Given the documents we have, one way of reading them is horizontally, comparing different versions of the same story. This reveals many discrepancies, for example, "Jesus dies on different days in Mark and John". Why has John changed history? To "make a theological point: Jesus is the sacrificial lamb."
We can be fairly sure of some biographical details. That Jesus came from Nazareth is multiply and independently attested and also passes the "criterion of dissimilarity" - "who would make up a story that the Savior came from Nazareth"? In contrast, the story that Jesus was born in Bethlehem is found only in Matthew and Luke and suits their need for Jesus to be the "son of David", "a descendant of Israel's greatest king". (A surprising detail always overlooked by constructors of nativity scenes is that, according to Matthew, Joseph and Mary actually lived in a house in Bethlehem.)
That Jesus did miracles also "cannot pass the criterion of dissimilarity". Storytellers "in the early church naturally wanted the people they were trying to convert to understand that Jesus was not a mere mortal." While Christians may not expect historical proof of the divinity of Jesus, they may be surprised that the Gospels themselves are inconsistent, with John contradicting the earlier Gospels. As Ehrman puts it, "if Jesus claimed he was divine", why do Matthew, Mark, and Luke all fail to mention this important detail?
The idea that "Jesus was not simply the Jewish son of God whom God had exalted at his resurrection" but that he was himself God "was one of the most enduring theological creations of the early Christian church." As Jesus became more divine, so he became less Jewish, and the "profoundly Jewish religion of Jesus and his followers became the viciously anti-Jewish religion of later times". Already, by the time the last Gospel was written, the Jews "are the children of the Devil". Also, John knows that the kingdom of God - as promised by Jesus and as believed by his earliest followers - has not in fact arrived, and so this too must be changed: "the apocalyptic notion of the resurrection of the body becomes transformed into the doctrine of the immortality of the soul."
Many readers of the Bible assume that "every author is basically saying the same thing." Ehrman shows how wrong this is and his scholarship seems impeccable as far as I can tell. However, he also believes that "all of the messages deserve to be heard" and that they need to be translated "into some kind of modern idiom" for them to make sense. Here, I think, is where his judgement lapses. It is like suggesting that the idea of phlogiston should be updated instead of simply junked. We can still be interested in why people once believed in phlogiston or in the divinity of Jesus, but to perpetuate such untruths in any way is an affront to reason. Only in a postmodern paradise is it up to individuals to carve out their own truth about the world, regardless of any objective standards. Ehrman seems to betray precisely those standards that have served him so well when he says, approvingly, that Christians "believe that truth is much deeper than what you can say, historically, about the Bible or the development of the Christian religion in the first four centuries." They may believe it, but can they demonstrate it?