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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.
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on 23 April 2009
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?
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on 11 January 2010
Ehrman has written a series of books, bringing to light the apocryphal works, the history of the formation of the New Testament, and now the contradictions in the biblical texts. For most readers this will be material that is new to them, and it is to some extent it is the Churches' fault that it is little known. (To some extent it is resistance from the "people in the pew" to having their preconceptions challenged, as when one explains from the pulpit that at Epiphany there were not three Kings but an unspecified number of magi or wise men, and promptly one gets complaints that you are upsetting people's faith.)
What Ehrman is less upfront about is that this knowledge is hardly new. Christians have been puzzling over these texts for hundreds of years - are we really expected to believe they've only just noticed the discrepancies? Similarly, are we really expected to think that the Jewish commentators on the Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible) never noticed these issues?
Actually, the Bible itself shows that some of the Old Testament writers were aware of the conflicts between the texts they were expanding. To take two just examples: in 1 Kings 15.5 there is a passage praising King David, but this is inconsistent with the story of his treatment of Uriah the Hittite, so a scribe added a qualification to 1 Kings 15 "except in the matter of Uriah the Hittite". Then Exodus and Deuteronomy disagree on how to cook the passover meal: Exodus 12.9 says it must be roasted, Deuteronomy 16.7 that it must be boiled. So the writer of 2 Chronicles tries to reconcile the two by talking of boiling the meat in fire - something rather difficult to do.
The finest example of analyzing the difficulties of the creation stories of Genesis is to this day still provided by Saint Augustine's works on the subject, particularly his "On the literal interpretation of Genesis", which takes the stories apart virtually word by word, and demonstrates how the accounts cannot be literal as we understand them, but are still spiritually useful. Augustine lived from 385 to 430AD, a little matter of 1600 years ago.
Examples abound in the Fathers (the early major Christian writers from the 3rd century onwards) of mentions of these problems.
As to the growth of the New Testament, a writer called Papias at the end of the first century collected the reminiscences of those who had known the apostles. His work is now only known from quotations, but it is from him that we learn that the Gospel of Mark was held to be based on Peter's memories, and that of John on the memories of John. Since he was writing no more than a generation at most after the gospels were written, it is important evidence.
This doesn't take away from what Ehrman says, but he hasn't discovered this material, nor is he the first to write about it. He is a populariser, and a good one, but a populariser none the less.
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on 6 May 2012
If you're a Christian, then you should read this book, but you'll probably wish that you hadn't! If you're a non-Christian, then this offers a fascinating insight into the origins of the biblical texts, revealing the many surprisingly contradictory elements - some of which are monumental - and the many instances of forgery. As an atheist, this book gave me a fairly comprehensive overview of the bibles content, without getting bogged down in religious ideology, though it does delve into this area. The book is not intended to completely debunk the bible's ideological message, but principally to question its religious value; it analyses its historical construction, demonstrates that "God" played little part (if any) in that construction or the textual content, while showing that Jesus (whoever he really was) did not invent Christianity and was certainly not divine.
My only criticism is that it is at times rambling, repetitive and lacking in eloquence. Nonetheless, I found it to be pretty addictive reading.
In conclusion, whatever your specific views of Christianity are, this book represents a fascinating revelation.
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on 26 May 2009
Bart Ehrman certainly does his homework. For anyone interested in sorting myths, legends and facts in the Bible this is a must read. Documentation backed by scholars to identify errors in translation, added texts, the identity of authors and textual conflicts makes this book hard to put down. The book has a respectful approach to the Bible yet guides the reader through the maze of fact, fiction and cultural acceptance of conflicting ideas. V Acuff
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Bart Ehrman's "Jesus Interrupted" will be "old-hat" to Bible scholars, but for its intended audience, the general church-going public, may well be, as the Boston Globe reviewer suggests, "... a grenade tossed into their tidy living rooms of religious faith". Ehrman's aim is to demonstrate to such people that the Bible, far from being a single, inspired work of Scripture that is wholly self-consistent, is in fact a conpendium of diffreent theologies which often conflict with one another, creating obvious inconsistencies and contradictions. No-one is better placed than Ehrman to undertake this task, for he begins by describing his own painful journey from his initial position as a dyed-in-the-wool literalist to his current liberal stance in which he takes the Bible to be largely metaphorical.

It is impossible to summarise the book adequately in such a short review. Let me simply pick on a few salient points. In Chapter 1 he outlines and champions the "historical-critical" method of studying the Bible. Rather than taking the Bible as the literal Word of God which must be taken literally, we should examine in detail how it was put together, the purposes of the many different authors, their intentions for their particular communities, their sometimes contradictory theologies, and so on. Ehrman laments the fact that although all the mainstream denominations require their clergy to be exposed to the historical-critical method in their initial studies prior to ordination, most of them fail to pass on what they have learned, and are content to keep their congregations in blissful ignorance.

In Chapter 2 Ehrman begins to apply the historical-critical method, turning first to the matter of contradictions, which fundamentalist Christians deny exist. When we look carefully, the existence of such contradictions is glaringly obvious. For example, in Matthew's Gospel (26:32; 28:7,10) Jesus insists on the disciples meeting him in Galilee after the resurrection, whereas in Luke 24:49 he commands them to stay put in Jerusalem until he has ascended and they have received the Holy Spirit. There are literally scores of other contradictions in the gospels alone.

In Chapter 3, Ehrman shows how the different New Testament writers, using a common stock of pre-gospel traditions, often take radically different theological stances, and see Jesus in different ways. We therefore need to study each book of the Bible in its own right in order to determine what each particular author was trying to convey to his particular community. When we simply pluck verses from the air willy-nilly, we simply sow the seeds of confusion.

Chapter 4, "Who Wrote the Bible?" challenges the assumption that all the books were written by those to whom they are ascribed, while Chapter 5 demonstrates the virtual impossibility of arriving at the real heart of the historical Jesus. All we can know about him is what his first disciples tell us, and that inevitably distorts the picture. Chapter 6 provides us with a potted history of how the 27 books of the New Testament came to be selected for the "canon" and pronounced scriptural. The story is one of centuries of development; there was no such thing as "the Bible" until the sixth century A.D., and even then, transmission depended on several centuries more scribal copying prior to the invention of printing, with all the scope for error which that afforded.

As I noted above, this book is not aimed at Bible scholars and teachers who know (or should know) all this already, but at a largely evangelical church-going public. My main concern, as with all books of this kind, is whether the intended audience will ever pick it up, let alone read it. Most evangelicals are complacently content to live out their faith without ever wishing to turn to critical questions of this kind, and my fear is that Ehrman will be a voice crying in the wilderness. Still, if there are any evangelicals out there reading this review - please! - pick up Ehrman's book and give it a go. It may change your entire attitude to the Bible.
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on 22 December 2010
If you really want to know how and why and how the holy book of the Christian commonly known as the Bible has been written you should definitely read the magnificent book by Bart. D. Ehrman called Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (And Why We Don't Know About Them).
Bart D. Ehrman tells in this book what the modern biblical scholarship really knows of the process that did in the end produce a collection of wildly differentiating and often even strongly contradictory texts, which was magically transform into a book by the simple act of collecting them under the same covers and giving them a common name.

The most fantastic part of this all is that Bart D. Ehrman is an American New Testament scholar and works currently the James A. Gray Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
He has been a evangelical Christian and has spent whole of his adult life in study of the Bible and all things relating to it. All in all he is a serious, heavy-wight professional biblical scholar and not a some atheist dilettante on a Sunday cruise in biblical lands.

So, Bart D. Ehrman is not an embittered atheist trying to undermine the Christian faith at its foundations. He is a biblical scholar who just has realized during the long years spent studying this book that it is a purely, utterly and completely human work that was produced to market and promote a struggling new faith in its infancy.
This is a book about the New Testament and what the modern biblical scholarship knows about the contradicting messages of the different authors of the book. It is also about the near complete lack of information on who really has written these texts that the later Christians did collect to form a book.

Bart D. Ehrman tells how we quite certainly know that not a single one of these texts was written by a person who would had known the Jewish preacher called Jesus personally or even known his closest companions.
Modern biblical scholarship is quite united in the view that these texts were written by people speaking a different language and they were most certainly written in a different country by people coming from a very different social class of people than the original followers of this preacher. Jesus and his disciples were Aramaic-speaking lower class fishermen, carpenters and handymen, when the writers of the gospels were Greek-speaking people with a working knowledge of philosophy and other higher learning.

The early part of the book is spent on studying the endless, apparent and in fact very easy to spot contradictions that are found in all of the biblical texts. He also spends time explaining why these apparent problems are overlooked and forgotten so easily by the believers.
Bart D. Ehrman also explains how the different gospels are products of different theological views that did fight for supremacy in the early Christian church. He tells how the development in theological ideas has transformed the later gospels so that their main character is hardly recognizable for the readers of the first gospels.

Bart D. Ehrman shows convincingly how the writers of the gospels were at best transmitting old oral traditions that had been circulating for decades among early Christian before the writing down of these short stories.
He explains also how things tend to change and become all more colourful with every new telling and how oral tradition really is not a reliable source of anything really.

Bart D. Ehrman goes also through the process that did lead to inclusion of certain texts in to the current Bible and the exclusion of others quite similar gospels with a quite similar antiquity.
He explains how the the early extremely diverse and rich Christian movement was turned into a monolith with only one allowed and accepted truth.

My own two cents is that this all happened mainly because the Roman Emperors did decide that this new religion could be used as a tool to forge a really united empire out of the rag-tag collection of conquered lands that the Roman Empire in the end was at the time.
Bart D. Ehrman does tell how the accepted gospels do represent the theological ideas of this winning faction, that was ultimately backed to win by the might of the Roman Empire and the Emperor.
Without this outside help the ultimate winners could also have been for example the powerful group of Gnostic's, who revered quite different texts as their only truth about the life of Jesus.

Bart D. Ehrman also looks what are the real facts about the central character of the Bible that can be discerned from the bible by cross-examining and comparing the textual evidence and finding out the parts that really could tell about the real-life Jesus.
The end result is that real Jesus was a quite typical Jewish preacher of apocalypse of his time, who did sincerely believe that the world would come to an end during the lifetime of his own direct followers.
He did evidently gather a base of followers, but when he was a unexpectedly killed by the authorities and no apocalypse was forthcoming, his stubborn followers had to re-think it all.

In this process the new ideas of sacrifice of the only son of the god and redeeming all sins were invented. Decades later new gospels were written to support these grand ideas and this originally quite simple figure became in every new telling more and more embroidered in mystical qualities.
IN this process his death was transformed from a terrible loss to the faithful to a winning proposition. Most of all the new ideas of heaven and hell and the ideas of getting to heaven only be believing in Jesus did emerge, which did give a great boost to the marketing of the faith.

Bart D. Ehrman tells in the end how he slowly lost his own faith and is now an agnostic professor of Biblical studies, even if he is adamant in claiming that the revealing of the true nature of the Bible and Jesus were not the deciding factor for him, but the idea of how God can allow the suffering in the world if he would really exist.

Jesus Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (and Why We Don't Know About Them)
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on 22 April 2016
An in depth critical analysis of the New Testament, who wrote it, and why. Despite the in depth nature of the subject matter, biblical scholar Bart D. Ehrman's book is very readable, and demonstrates quite clearly why the Bible, and in particular the New Testament is NOT the inerrant word of God - but a collection of competing books by contradictory authors, shaped, rewritten and edited by fallible humans promoting their own agenda's as they wrestled for control of the early Christian church and it's teachings. None of the gospel writers, all of which were working from oral tradition tens of years after the events they describe, and to which it is at least unlikely (and in some cases impossible) they were first hand witnesses, anticipated their work would be collected into one book, where they could be read side by side to demonstrate their glaring inconsistencies, some of which go to the very heart of Christianity. Many might be surprised to learn that the authors are not necessarily those to who they are ascribed, and unlikely any were the initial disciples of Jesus. Even Paul - formerly Saul of Tarsus - did not meet Christ during his lifetime, and became a convert decades after his death - and suddenly was gifted with a great knowledge and understanding of his teachings despite never having conversed with him. And his views when critically analysed seem to differ with the accounts of the gospels themselves.

Where was Jesus born? Was his mother a virgin? Was he a man or a god? What were his attitudes towards the Old Testament? Towards women? Towards the Jews? What day was he crucified on? Did he die in the morning or in the afternoon? What were the events of his resurrection and exactly who witnessed them?

This book advocates that readers should see the four canonical gospels as four independent records and read them within their own particular context to understand why the authors included or excluded various aspects of the life and teachings of Jesus. At least one of the gospels was written long after the death of Jesus and it was patently obvious that the apocalyptic prophesies and imminent arrival of God's kingdom on earth had not been fulfilled - therefore the message is different from the other gospels. Mark is written by a Roman Christian, and so takes a different view from Matthew who was a Jew with regards to whether one needed to follow the rules of Moses as set out in the Old Testament.

This should prove a sober and literate scholarly analysis of the bible and it's claims to be some kind of divine scripture inspired by the inerrant word of God. If this is the inspired work of some divine being then he made a complete hash of it, since it has inconsistencies and holes you could drive a bus through, and he should fire his editor at once.
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on 9 January 2013
Prof Ehrman's book is an excellent introduction to historical - critical method in New Testament studies and he does it very well, as far as it goes. Members of the new evangelical churches will find it quite scary and probably their pastors will direct them away from it. But the book contains nothing new at all that was not taught when I was at theological college 40 years ago. It is indeed a good question to ask why we do not know all about it in the churches. Sometimes those of us who have had years of preaching have wanted not to unsettle the faith of the faithful though in my experience people want to think and know and understand the inheritance of faith.

Of course, coming from a liberal tradition I don't see the Bible as the word of God in any case and therefore can't see what the fuss is about when it comes to people running away from biblical criticism. So I welcome this book and hope that it is widely read; it deserves to be.

However I have one big reservation about it and that is that it doesn't go far enough. The author spends time comparing the infancy narratives in Matthew and Luke and the obvious inconsistencies and contradictions. But I would want to go much further and say that the infancy narratives were added at a much later stage even than when the Gospels were written - that they are the product of imagination. I also noted that there was a total dearth of attention paid to the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Q. At this particular stage in the history of biblical criticism I do find that odd, nor is there any reference to the Jesus seminar whose work is so influential among biblical studies today.

But as a starter, and an exciting one at that, this book is very good indeed - I just wish it went a little further.
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on 21 June 2015
The author has an incredibly deep understanding of the origins and meanings of the bible. He clearly explains how the myth was created and why it had such contradictory views within it. All this is based on historical research. But when trying to decide if Jesus really existed he abandons research and then relies on unproven sources such as the mysterious "Q". Come on Mr Ehrman. You KNOW Jesus was a mythical figure. Take the final step and admit it.
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