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Not as new as it seems
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.