on 14 September 2010
This is a very thourough, interesting and well documented introduction to all the writings in The New Testament. It is easy to read, even for one not too comfortable with the English language.
However, one should not read this book without checking the information given in other books from authors who do not take as a starting point that the gospels and the Pauline letters tell the truth. Ehrman is obviously a Christian believer and as such has as a starting point that Jesus Christ as described in The New Testament was a human being. It is a well known fact that you see only what you believe. I am a sceptic, so I do not see or accept the same argument for Christianity as a believer. Ehrman have many comments that I do not find valid as historical facts. I will here say something about the most striking errors or, maybe I should rather say, misinformation.
Ehrman refers only to the Roman admiral Pliny the Elder when writing about the Essenes, and informs us that this was a group located to Qumran or a nearby area (as told by Pliny), and probably the group behind the Dead Sea Scrolls. Furthermore Ehrman writes that the social arrangements and theological views described in the Dead Sea Scrolls correspond to what we know about the Essenes from other accounts. (See page 48.) I will recommend Ehrman's readers to consult the Jewish writer Josephus and the Jewish philosopher Philo, who both lived in the first century. What they tell us does not correspond with Pliny's story. It should be noted that Pliny tells us that the society he calls Essenes is a society without women. Josephus tells us that the Essenes did not live at a specific place or town and that you can find them in many towns. Furthermore, Josephus writes about a man he calls John the Essene who participated bravely at the battle of Askalon in the beginning of the Jewish war. Does this fit in with what the gospels tell us about Jesus and his followers? I can recommend Robert Eisenman's book The New Testament Code - The Cup of the Lord, The Damascus Covenant and The Blood of Christ, which presents you with an opposite view from what Ehrman writes. Also Eisenman's book James, the Brother of Jesus, is of great value in this regard.
As regards the two testimonies about Jesus that we today find in Josephus' book The Antiquities of the Jews, we know that not one copy of Josephus has come down to us which has not passed through the hands of Christians. Ehrman cites only the first, longest testimony (see page 228) and mentions that scholars today have removed the Christianized portions, so that now it seems more acceptable in regard to what Josephus may have written. In the next chapter in Josephus we find the following sentence: "James, the brother of Jesus, the one called Christ, ..." This sentence is not cited by Ehrman. Maybe we can presume that also this sentence has been Christianized. However that may be, the long description does not fit in with the rest of the text, which make you suspect that the whole passage has been added by later scribes. Dr. Robert Eisler has in the book The Messiah Jesus and John the Baptist explained that not one text from Josephus has come down to us such as Josephus originally wrote it.
Ehrman writes that three Roman authors from the beginning of the second century, Tacitus, Suetonius and Pliny the Younger, have stories about Jesus. However, none of these authors use the name Jesus. They write about Chrestus and Christians. The question is, as also Ehrman mention, who is this Chrestus. The readers ought to be informed that Chrestus was a common name at that time. Both king Agrippa II and Simon Magus was called Chrestus. Simon Magus was highly revered and had many followers in the first century. He was also called God and The Son of God by some followers, but he was hated by the early Christians.
"Something happened to Paul on the road to Damascus" at least according to Acts, where we find three different versions of this event. How was that possible? The author of Acts cannot be one person telling three different stories at the same time. Rather, there must have been three authors or composers of the text, and the one putting it all together cannot have read the manuscripts thoroughly. These authors have neither read Paul's own description of the event. According to Paul, his experience did not happen on the road to Damascus and he did not see Jesus (see 2 Cor 12,2-5). On the contrary, he had just escaped from Damascus by the way of a basket down the wall since king Aretas's men wanted to arrest him (2 Cor 11,32-33). How trustworthy is Acts? Ehrman is only referring to the three stories in Acts, not what Paul is recalling (see page 301). That is rather surprising. Ehrman finds that 14 years from Pauls' experience to his retelling the event, is such a long period of time that Paul probably had forgotten the details. But he does not explain how the author(s) of Acts can retell the story at least 50/70 years after it happened, and better than Paul. I will recommend the books by Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy The Jesus Mysteries - was the Original Jesus a Pagan God? and The Laughing Jesus - Religious Lies and Gnostic Wisdom in order to get a better understanding of Paul's letters. As Ehrman has pointed out, the Christians adjusted the texts when copying them according to what they found suitable, and we do not know the original documents. In many of the Pauline letters (not all of them are written by the man called Paul and not everything in one letter is written by one man) the word Christ is used, not Jesus (see as example 1 Cor 15,20). Did the original text of the letters contain the name Jesus or only Lord or Christ? We do not know. But if you want to believe, of course it must have been Jesus.
Ehrman refers to some of the early Christian writers, but does not mention any of the critics regarding their writing. Ignatius (50-115) shall have written seven letters that is known today. Those shall have been written after he was arrested by the Romans and during his transport to Rome where he was to be executed. Many researchers are surprised that he was allowed writing letters while a prisoner, and also that he was transported from Antioch to Rome. A prisoner would normally be executed on the spot. His description of this transport is not trustworthy.
Papias (70-155) does not mention the gospels of Marc, Luke or John in his writings, which is rather surprising if they existed in his time. He says that the gospel of Matthew is a collection of oracles, which cannot be the gospel we know. He gives us some details as regards the death of Judas Iscariot which is rather horrific and not to believe.
Polycarp (69-156/167) died as a martyr according to legend (age 87/98). In his writings he uses sentences from the Pauline letters and endorses Paul's authority. He also uses sentences we find in the gospels of Matthew, Luke and John, and also in Acts, 1 Peter and 1 John, but he does not mention any of these works. Does that mean that such papers were in circulation at his time, but without any author behind them? Or are these sentences coming from him?
Tertullian (160-220) was an aggressive supporter of the Christian faith until he left the Church in 206/207 and joined the prophet Montanus. Tertullian wrote, before he left, that he believed in Jesus because the story was absurd. Does this mean that Tertullian did no longer accept what he earlier had written in favour of Christianity? Montanus' sect was declared heretic by the Church in the year 177, although Montanus converted to Christendom in 156. This is not mentioned by Ehrman.
Ehrman consider as historical facts information given in two or three, preferably independent, sources, such as two gospels and Josephus. As an example, he refers to the story about John the Baptist, which we find both in the gospels of Marc and John and the source-gospel Q as well as Josephus (see page 98 and 232-233). Ehrman considers this as proof that Jesus has existed. However, from my point of view, it only shows that John the Baptist was a central figure in Palestine in the beginning of the first century. King Herodes Antipas had him executed, not because of the story found in the gospels, but more probably because he was considered a rebel or a threat to the establishment. If you wanted to write a trustworthy story about a wise man from Palestine in the first century, it was important to include a person that many people had heard of and who was considered a great prophet.
I cannot consider the different gospels or papers included in The New Testament as independent sources, due to the fact that we do not know when they were written, neither the original text. The Bible we have today is composed through selection and corrections due to theologians and scribes during several centuries. We know that there were many faked stories and also lots of manuscripts that did not end up in The New Testament, which were in circulation in the second century. How much was faked in the texts we have today? I want to conclude my critic of Ehrman's book with the following comments from a Roman in the second century, Celsus, who wrote around the year 170: "(The Christians) changed the original text at least three or four times, maybe more, in order to destroy arguments from the critics."
If we want to know the real story behind The New Testament, we must start with the political climate in the first and second century and also consider the religious feelings and practices both among Jews as well as gentiles and among specific mystery-groups, not only in Palestine but in the Roman world. The early Christian writers, apart from Ignatius, Papias and Polycarp, were not writing until the second half of the second century, and what did they actually know about what happened in Palestine in the first half of the first century. I do not believe that most of the Pauline letters were written in the middle of the first century, nor that the gospels were composed at the end of the first century. But to explain this in detail requires a whole book.