414: Conversation With Bart Ehrman on a skeptical look at the Bible’s consistency

HOW FAR WE’VE COME in serious Bible study! Not many years ago, questions about conflict within the Bible’s sacred text could prompt public burnings in the Bible Belt. And, now, those same concerns inspire the hospitality of National Public Radio and ReadTheSpirit—thanks to pioneers like John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg, who we just welcomed into our online magazine, talking about one of their latest books.
    This long and often turbulent journey by Bible scholars lays the groundwork for the publication of provocative new books like Bart Ehrman’s “Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (And Why We Don’t Know About Them).”
    As shocking as Bart’s title may sound, he’s actually trying in a constructive way to connect the hundreds of millions of Bible readers in America with a broad consensus of Bible scholars—and, like Borg and Crossan these days, he’s finding a receptive audience rather than flames. We think Ehrman’s book is a solid choice for small-group study. You’ll have no shortage of spirited discussion!

    I’m not kidding about “public burning”—and not that many years ago! I’ve been reporting nationally on religion for many years and, back in 1993, I wrote about a new book that Borg and Crossan were publishing. The book questioned the historical accuracy of some details in the gospels—much as Ehrman does in his new book. A version of my newspaper story, which moved through national wire services, was published in northern Indiana. Its appearance on the front page of a newspaper there literally sparked Baptist churches to stage a public burning of the newspaper—a story covered by both the Chicago Sun Times and the New York Times.
    For 16 years, I’ve saved the words spoken in my defense in the face of the newspaper burners, voiced by Will Sutton, executive editor of the Post-Tribune in northwest Indiana. In response to the flames and smoke, Will said: “The story was written by David Crumm, a Knight-Ridder reporter who covers religion. His article was fair, accurate, balanced and very well-written. It was not a slap at any community in terms of the content of the article or the placement of the article in the newspaper.”
    Will continued: “We welcome views from all our readers, those who are angry about something we’ve done as well as those who are happy about something we’ve done. There’s no conspiracy against any of our communities.”
    All these years later, Will could have been writing a mission statement for ReadTheSpirit—or could have been defending Bart Ehrman’s new book about the Bible. And, please, if you suspect Will was some kind of bomb thrower himself—on the contrary, he remains a nationally respected journalist and is proud to call himself an Eagle Scout with the BSA.


    DAVID: This is a “first” for us. Our publisher John Hile got to your book before I did and asked me when we were going to get you back into the pages of ReadTheSpirit. We published an earlier Conversation with you, as well. But you’re hitting another resonant note here with this new book.
    In fact, I think the goal of your new book is right in line with our own Founding Principles, especially our commitment No. 2: “If we are people of Truth, then we have nothing to fear from creatively, vigorously searching for Truth.” You’re talking about transparency here—connecting readers with what major Bible scholars are saying, right?
    BART: I agree. One of the things I tried to do in the book is to summarize what scholars have been saying for many years about the Bible. But these are things that most people have never heard of–either because scholars have done such a terrible job of communicating with normal human beings–or because pastors who learn this stuff in seminary don’t communicate it with people.
    What I’m writing about here isn’t groundbreaking work on biblical scholarship. In this book, I’m laying out for general readers what scholars have said for years.

    DAVID: I heard your NPR interview, which, I thought, was pretty well done although it tended to focus mostly on a couple of specific aspects of the book and I think our readers may be interested in the larger significance of your work.
    But let’s start with the specifics to give readers an idea of what they’ll find in the book. You run through a lot of the conflicts between books of the Bible, specifically between the four gospels about Jesus’ life. Some of our readers will be familiar with this—others won’t. So, let’s give an example. How about the gospel of John and the end of Jesus’ life, which we’ve just been considering at Easter?

    BART: It’s interesting that there are both little discrepancies in John in relation to the other gospels and big thematic differences. One of the ways to realize that there can be these bigger thematic differences is by starting with discrepancies in basic details.
    Here’s a very basic question: When was Jesus crucified? Both Mark, our earliest gospel that probably was written somewhere around the year 70 AD, and Matthew, which is thought to have been written about 80 to 85—both are very specific: Jesus eats a Passover meal, he gets arrested and he’s crucified the next morning on the day after the Passover meal is eaten.
    But then John, our latest gospel—and there was something like 60 years between Jesus’ death and the gospel of John—the detail is quite different. John doesn’t mention it’s a Passover meal. Jesus ends up in John being crucified on the day before the Passover on the day of preparation for Passover. John has Jesus die one day earlier than the other two gospels.
    They all can’t be right. Jesus either dies before the Passover meal or after it. Why does John do this? Well, John emphasizes that Jesus should be understood as the “Lamb of God” who takes away the sins of the world. The day before Passover, at that time, was the day the lambs were killed by the priests in preparation for the Passover. In John, Jesus is the Passover Lamb, so it’s no accident that the killing comes at the same hour that the lambs were killed.

    DAVID: These gospels represent the core of a faith shared by 2 billion people around the world. (Photo at right is from the famous 7th-Century Lindisfarne Gospels.) Some people can get extremely upset when we begin talking about conflicts in details between the gospels.
    For most of us, I think, we’re not actually scouring the gospels for the accuracy of individual details—like we might study a history or science textbook and zero in on inconsistencies.
    I was thinking as I read your book—by the time we get to the production of the Gospel of John, we’re talking about a memoir of Jesus written 60 years after his life here on earth. This would be like someone sitting down to write a memoir of World War II right now.
    BART: That’s right—and it would be someone writing a memoir with only word-of-mouth resources handed down to them. They wouldn’t have a research library of resources. They wouldn’t have easy access to eyewitnesses.
    DAVID: A lot of preachers and teachers over the years—using what you describe as “pious imagination” have figured out ways to smooth out all the conflicts between the gospels. The gospels don’t agree, for example, on exactly when Jesus trashed the moneychangers’ booths at the temple. Early in his ministry? Or near the very end? Some pious versions, trying hard to smooth it over, say he must have done this twice—early and late in his ministry. In fact, it makes sense that the gospel writers would have placed the scene in the story to maximum effect.
    BART: That’s right. There are larger thematic differences, too. Jesus is different from beginning to end in John’s gospel, compared with others. In Matthew, Mark and Luke, Jesus is certainly the Son of God but in the Jewish understanding of that term the Son of God was never thought to be God—it was thought to be a human being as in the Old Testament where King Solomon is called the Son of God in Second Samuel. Jesus was the Son of God in Matthew, Mark and Luke in that he had a close relationship with God and was the man used by God to fulfill his purposes on earth.
    When you get to John, Jesus is not only the human Son of God—he’s God himself. You get this at the very beginning of the gospel and at the very end of the gospel when Jesus appears before his disciples including “Doubting” Thomas. Then, Thomas realizes who he is and confesses: “My Lord and my God.” This is a scene we don’t get in the other gospels.

    DAVID: Do you agree with Crossan and Borg on a point we discussed in our conversation about their new book—that there’s a scholarly consensus now crediting Paul with writing only seven of the letters that are attributed to him in the New Testament?
    BART: This is one of those rare moments when I agree with Marcus and Dom. I agree that there are seven letters that scholars simply call “the undisputed letters” that certainly go back to Paul. There are other letters claiming to be by Paul that, in modern terms, are a literary forgery.
    DAVID: Forgery is a harsh term that you use in your book so let’s talk about it. Why “forgery”?
    BART: Ancient people had terms that are similar and are just as negative as the term I’m using: forgery. A number of books in the New Testament are forgeries claiming to be written by other people.
    Literary forgery in the ancient world is one area that New Testament scholars, as a rule, don’t know much about. The only serious scholarship on ancient literary forgery is in German and a lot of New Testament scholars haven’t read it.
    DAVID: Many contemporary writers, producing inspirational books about the Bible now, tend to dismiss this as a well-known practice at that time, right? They assume that everybody knew about the practice and accepted it. So what if Paul didn’t write everything attributed to him in the New Testament? Everybody knew that Paul’s followers would write books attributed to him, they say. On the contrary, though, you say: No, this wasn’t as widely accepted. This process of falsely attributing a work was condemned in the ancient world, you say.
    BART: Right, a lot of New Testament scholars say it was so widespread that people in the ancient world didn’t take it seriously. But that’s absolutely wrong. Ancient people do write about this and they condemn the practice. It’s condemned so widely that even in forged documents sometimes you’ll find writers condemning forgery!
    DAVID: But explain this choice of terms: forgery.
    BART: The modern term does have very strong connotations. But the ancient world had terms for this, too, when someone claimed to be someone other than who they really were. In Greek literature there are two words—pseudos, which means “lie” or “falsehood,” which is a strong term. The other is nothos, which means “bastard.” The idea is that some authors have legitimate children, namely the additional works they produce themselves—and they have bastards, books that are attributed to them that aren’t actually theirs.
    The way it works in early Christian scholarship is that most people writing on early Christianity when they talk about this issue refer to it as pseudipigrapha, which means falsely signed. But, the words in Greek sounds rather antiseptic. When they talk about the same phenomenon outside the New Testament, they call these things in English “forgery.” Almost always this choice of terms is driven by a theological view that we have to protect people from the truth.

    DAVID: Do you agree with Crossan and Borg that Paul was opposed to slavery and, perhaps had he lived longer, he might have come out even more strongly as an abolitionist. They use the letter Philemon as evidence.
    BART: No, I don’t see the basis for that claim. I think they’re painting Paul in their own image. They’re against slavery, so they want to believe Paul was against slavery. I don’t see the evidence. I think that in the letter of Philemon, Paul was not asking Philemon to set Onesimus free from slavery but to give him to Paul as Paul’s slave. I don’t see any grounds at all to see that Paul would have come out against slavery.
    DAVID: I like the way you end your new book. From what we’ve been saying in this interview, readers may assume that your position now is that of an opponent of faith, perhaps even an atheist position. But what you explain at the end of the book is actually similar to what I’ve heard from a number of serious, respected Bible scholars who teach in universities.
    You say that you’re an agnostic in matters of faith—not taking a particular religious position—but you are a serious scholar in search of truth.
    BART: In this book, I’m trying to guard against two reactions I sometimes get from students—one being that they simply don’t want to hear any of this, walk away and hold onto their beliefs that they were raised on in Sunday school. And, on the other hand, there are students who come to believe that everything they’ve believed is now wrong—and they want to give up on religion entirely.
    I’m saying that neither step is necessary in honestly studying this. I’m saying that we can critically study and explore these issues—and that people also can continue to be people of faith in the process.
    DAVID: I think you put it eloquently in the final paragraph of your book, so let’s close this conversation with your words, taken from your final page:
    “Even those of us who do not believe in the Bible can still learn from it. It is a book that deserves to be read and studied, not just as a document of faith but also as a historical record of the thoughts, beliefs, experiences, activities, loves, hates, prejudices and opinions of people who stand at the very foundation of our civilization and culture. It can help us think about the big issues of life—why we are here, what we should be doing, what will become of this world. It can inspire us—and warn us—by its examples. It can urge us to pursue truth, to fight oppression, to work for justice, to insist on peace. It can motivate us to live life more fully while yet we can. It can encourage us to live more for others and not only for ourselves. There will never be a time in the history of the human race when such lessons will have become passe, when the thoughts of important religious thinkers of the past will be irrelevant for those of us living, and thinking in the present.”


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