Bart Ehrman is a fascinating author, both for his writing and the personal story he weaves into his writing. First and foremost an academic, Ehrman bases his general audience writing on solid scholarly research, without an overly academic tone. His academic specialty is New Testament scholarship, a specialty frequently predicated on a belief in some stripe of Christianity.
Indeed, Ehrman started his career from a deeply held faith in Biblical inerrancy, beginning his academic pursuits at Moody Bible Institute, a center of evangelical Christian education in Chicago. When Ehrman left Moody to study in the more secular academic environment of Princeton, the challenge to his faith grew. He came to understand the New Testament not as the inerrant word of the divine, but rather as a human narrative of a community trying to make sense of their world through their understanding of Jesus, and his teachings.
In Jesus Interrupted, Ehrman explains the methods of textual analysis that he and other scholars use to search for the historical Jesus. Ehrman notes there is really remarkably little known about Jesus. What we do know comes from the tattered remnants of a few texts that have survived the centuries. To gain a proper understanding of these texts, scholars consider their respective histories, and the relationship between the texts. The few documents we have are transcriptions from an oral tradition. None of them are truly contemporary accounts of Jesus, and contradictions between the texts are quite common.
Ehrman focuses on a few exemplary passages to show the contradictions inherent in the different retellings of Jesus life and teaching. He emphasizes scrupulous analysis of the historical documents via horizontal reading. With this method, documents are comparatively aligned, matching say the story of the Jesus birth in the extant Gospels. By noting the differences and similarities in the text, historians can determine the relationship between the Gospels. Texts are then considered in light of the historical context of the author and the author’s community of belief.
From this circumstantial evidence, historians can put together a picture of Jesus in a context contemporaneous with the historical documents. But, like a jigsaw puzzle with a crucial missing piece, we can only guess who the real Jesus was. Yet, despite these limitations, historians have pieced together a rich picture of Jesus in his time, as well as a picture of the Gospel writers in a historical context. The trouble is, outside of the academic world this picture is unknown. Instead, conservative claims of biblical inerrancy are often used to promote and defend an image of Jesus often contradicted within the Gospels themselves.
Ehrman’s journey to come to terms with his faith is well documented in one of his other books as he explored the problem of suffering. In what must have been a difficult battle of heart versus mind, Ehrman rejected his belief in Christianity, and became what I would call a rational but reluctant agnostic. I say reluctant, as I sense from his writing that his faith meant a great deal to him, and he certainly recognizes the value of faith for individuals. His reasoned pursuit of the historical Jesus let him see that Jesus was a man, certainly a great and influential man, but in the end simply a man.
The Jesus we know from Christian faith is practically divorced from what we historically know about Jesus. In his time, he was a little known preacher in the hinterlands of the vast Roman empire. The Gospels, written in different eras well after Jesus death, represent the mythical Jesus, a common man elevated to the status of a deity by people desperate for what everyone wants: peace, love, justice, answers when there are none and hope when that is all we have to hang on to. But Jesus life cannot be understood as some sort of amalgam of the four Gospels, when the there are so many contradictions between the various Gospel texts. Rather, the Gospels stand on their own, each a moving story for different communities at different times.
In the end, Ehrman concludes that Jesus as discovered through historical research is just as powerful as the mythical Jesus of faith. Understanding Jesus life through a deeper study of history requires us to make decisions about what in his teaching is truly relevant for us, in our times. Jesus, whether man or myth, is one of the most influential historical figures, and his story remains compelling to millions of people around the world. Ehrman ultimately rejected his faith for agnosticism, yet he still finds great power in the teachings of Jesus, as a philosopher. And he sees no contradiction in a full understanding of the historical Jesus, and a belief in Jesus as a divine figure of devotion. The very fact that Jesus life inspires that devotion is what makes him a worthwhile subject of historical scholarship. Ehrman’s work will certainly challenge those who believe in an inerrant bible, but for myself (a devout agnostic) and open-minded people of faith, Ehrman’s scholarly exploration of the historical Jesus is a captivating, worthwhile journey.
- Thomas L. Thompson responds to Bart Ehrman’s Did Jesus Exist? (vridar.wordpress.com)
- Jesus Interrupted…the thought provoking Bart Ehrman (thewearypilgrim.typepad.com)