on 19 December 2010
In recent years, I've come across a number of favourable references to Bart Ehrman and his work, in the course of my reading but, having never really considered a strong knowledge of The Bible to be a necessary weapon when debating with theists, I'd never taken the trouble, personally, to investigate the books of scholars, like Ehrman, who have endeavoured to share the fruits of their work with laypeople like myself. Reading online debates between theists and non-theists, however, on the subjects of, for example, the historicity of Jesus, the veracity of the Bible, etc, has brought me to wonder what I might be missing by not having a better understanding of the book that I've scarcely opened since the age of about 15 - the age at which I was confirmed into the protestant Church of England.
So, with that in mind, I became excited at the prospect of reading `Jesus, Interrupted', after having chanced across it in the local library, and Ehrman's book didn't disappoint. In fact, it kept me enthralled from the first page to the last. Certainly, I can safely say that I wish I'd purchased, or sought out, one of Ehrman's books long before now. Whilst `Jesus, Interrupted' is the first of Ehrman's books that I've had the pleasure of reading, it seems like it was an excellent place to start.
Whilst recounting many of the details of his own intellectual journey, Ehrman leads the reader through the New Testament, with particular emphasis on the 'Synoptic Gospels' (Matthew, Mark, Luke & John): In some detail, he discusses a number of the most glaring contradictions between their accounts including, for example, the day of Jesus' crucifixion and the details surrounding Jesus' alleged resurrection - all great stuff - before moving-on to the thorny question as to whom, exactly, these accounts might actually have been written by. To quote (p.105-6):
"Nothing in the Gospels or Acts indicates that Jesus' followers could read, let alone write.... As Galilean Jews, Jesus' followers, like Jesus himself, would have been speakers of Aramaic. As rural folk they probably would not have any knowledge of Greek; if they did, it would have been extremely rough, since they spent their time with other illiterate Aramaic-speaking peasants trying to eke out a hand-to-mouth existence.
In short, who were Jesus' disciples? Lower-class, illiterate, Aramaic-speaking peasants from Galilee.
And who were the authors of the Gospels? ... The authors of the Gospels were highly educated, Greek-speaking Christians who probably lived outside Palestine."
Having established the overwhelming likelihood that the Gospels were not written by eyewitnesses or by people who personally knew Jesus or even by people who personally knew the disciples of Jesus, Ehrman discusses what we might be able to 'know' about Jesus and about his life. In short, he accepts the existence of a historical Jesus but forcefully argues that there is no good reason to accept the presupposition of orthodox Christians that Jesus either knew, or believed himself to be 'divine', in the course of which discussion he lays waste to the 'Liar, Lunatic or Lord?' argument proffered by C.S. Lewis and by others since. Again, this is great stuff to someone not intimately acquainted with the details of the Gospel accounts; should I have more time, I would love to verify each of Ehrman's Biblical references for myself.
Ehrman provides tremendous insight into some of the historical forces behind modern day Christianity and the Bible, in the course of answering the questions, 'How We Got the Bible' and 'Who Invented Christianity?'. He also discusses the limits of historical investigation into the veracity of the Bible, specifically with reference to the allegedly 'supernatural' aspects, i.e. the miracles, which he places firmly beyond the grasp of over-zealous theists, or theologians, masquerading as historians.
"There is something historically problematic with his being raised from the dead, however. This is a miracle, and by the very nature of their craft, historians are unable to discuss miracles. That is my thesis in this final section. This thesis seems counterintuitive to some people: if something actually happened, even a miracle, isn't it subject to historical investigation? Isn't the refusal to consider the possibility of a miracle an antisupernatural bias? Do you think atheists are the only ones who can do history?" (p.172)
To answer this question, I am quoting only a short section of Ehrman's detailed answer:
"If historians can only establish what probably happened, and miracles by their definition are the least probable occurrences, then more or less by definition, historians cannot establish that miracles have ever probably happened....
Many Christians don't want to hear this, but the reality is that there are lots of other explanations for what happened to Jesus that are more probable than the explanation that he was raised from the dead. None of these explanations is very probable, but they are more probable, just looking at the matter historically, than the explanation of the resurrection." (p.176)
Some of Ehrman's most important conclusions, to my mind, are as follows:
1. All the evidence indicates that the Bible is, in fact, a collection of books written entirely (and solely) by fallible human individuals; individuals writing decades after the events that they allege took place; by individuals who were not eyewitnesses to the events they allege took place; by individuals, almost certainly, who did not even know, personally, any of the individuals actually believed to be 'eyewitnesses', e.g. the disciples.
2. The Bible gives no good reason to grant the theistic premise that Jesus knew, or understood himself to be 'divine'.
3. Because of the limits of historical investigation, the historian - qua historian - cannot conclude that the Bible, in itself, provides evidence for, or reason to accept, the many accounts of Jesus' miracles as being true.
To conclude this review, I highly recommend 'Jesus, Interrupted' to anyone wanting to gain a better understanding - a rational understanding, rather than a 'devotional' one - of the Bible, as a historical document. Whilst each of the above points might seem self-evident to many, or most, non-theists, Ehrman makes clear the reasons why these statements are so, in language that is non-partisan - i.e. in language that theists themselves ought to be able to understand; for that, this is a valuable book. So, whilst many will, undoubtedly, disagree with Ehrman's conclusions, what he has written will, at least, have to be taken seriously by Christian believers.