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An agnostic's agenda?
on 20 September 2009
I recall a reviewer of one of Ehrman's books observing the author as merely pushing his agnostic agenda. Fair comment, but for tackling a profound subject such as this what are the alternatives?
Well, and to make a few generalisations, erudite atheists such as Dawkins seemingly want the believer to see sense and start living a secularly productive life away from the restrictions of dogma. Most other atheists categorise believers as deluded, scratch it and get on with their lives (history isn't exactly abundant with wars waged by atheists on countries of faith to 'de-convert' the masses to secularism). So if an atheist were the author how balanced would the book be? Conversely, a believer is compelled to convert the reader to the light and would nigh on find it impossible to remain objective in their interpretation of their book of faith.
So what we have from an agnostic is a thoroughly absorbing book on the origins of the Bible, its authors, its discrepancies and historical context. There is much overlap of topic and narrative with some of Ehrman's previous books so those who have read Misquoting Jesus for example, expect a sense of déjà-vu. But we do learn some new things as Ehrman invites the reader to look at the Bible from an observational stance free from the confines of doctrine, and view it and therefore understand it as a human creation.
The discrepancies in the Bible, both minor and consequential, are many and Ehrman picks some of the highlights for discussion.
Take the nativity story as one of many examples. The first problem is the two significantly differing accounts in Matthew and Luke, of Mary and Joseph's journey, the dates, its reasons and routes taken. Secondly, its lack of corroboration with non-Christian historical sources e.g. there is no other contemporary evidence of Herod's massacre of the innocents. Thirdly, who were the educated scribes documenting this epic journey of two peasants, as they certainly were not eyewitnesses? A similar problem arises at Jesus' trial. Who witnessed and memorised Jesus' famously profound discussions with Pontius Pilate behind closed doors, and who relayed said conversation (who knows how many steps removed) word for word to a foreign scribe some 40 years later?
The point being is that the source subject (i.e. Jesus' life) has been interpreted by the writers and the gospels therefore, to a greater or lesser extent, are inaccurate. This fact is inescapable and once you accept this you simply can't turn a blind eye and must question the reliability of everything, every story and every word. Personally, I simply can't get past this before I can start to marvel at the Bible's 'amazing' similarities (which Christian authors proclaim) let alone base my whole life around it. Nor can I cherry pick the parts I want to hear and either ignore the inconsistencies or validate them with convoluted and clever interpretation (a practice at which Ehrman professes he was once an avid expert).
As to why there exist these biblical discrepancies, alterations, additions, false attributions and so on, Ehrman offers credible explanation as we learn of the developing Church's and biblical writers' possible motives in context of their historical environment. For example Mark was the earliest gospel author and saw Jesus as a great man, debatably not divine but certainly a Jew and a believer in the Jewish route to salvation. Conversely, John is regarded as the most anti-Semitic of the four so his gospel makes particular emphasis on Jesus being God and the only way to heaven - and this is not surprising as, being the last gospel writer some 60 years after Christ's death, John was a reflection of the growing Christian movement being at odds with the established Jewish faith.
Some believers, who are not hung up with the inconsistencies in the gospels, often claim that you have to read all the narratives to get the whole picture. In Ehrman's view this 'averaging' process effectively means you are the creator and editor of your very own 'definitive' fifth gospel and he warns that this patently devalues the originals (whatever 'original' means as the earliest surviving texts of any significance were written around 200CE). Accept each gospel for what it is; a well-meaning narrative of a deeply influential and great man, but a narrative nonetheless, not of eyewitness testimony but in fact based on verbal accounts of illiterate folk passed on through the generations.
So as for Ehrman pushing his agnostic agenda is simply not true. He never attacks faith, indeed he freely references those of his equally scholarly colleagues who have kept their faith; all he goes to say is that his has been lost to the evidence. Furthermore, Ehrman categorically does not deny the existence of God, nor does he deny that Jesus is the son of God; he simply states that the texts that are present in today's Bible are not reliable as evidence to support this belief. I have to agree.