Monday, October 12, 2009

The Real Bible by Bart D. Ehrman

As soon as I came fully to grips with the reality that we don't have the actual inspired words of God in the Bible- since we no longer have the originals, and in some cases don't know what the originals said- it opened the door to the possibility that the Bible is a very human book. This allowed me to study it from a historical-critical perspective. And doing so led to all the results we have seen in this book.

* I came to see that there were flat-out discrepancies among the books of the New Testament. Sometimes these discrepancies could be reconciled if one worked hard enough at it with pious imagination; other times the discrepancies could not, in my judgment, be reconciled, however fanciful the explanation.

* I further came to see that these differences related not just to small details here and there. Sometimes different authors had completely different understandings of important issues: Was Jesus in doubt and despair on the way to the cross (Mark) or calm and in control (Luke)? Did Jesus' death provide an atonement for sin (Mark and Paul) or not (Luke)? Did Jesus perform signs to prove who he was (John) or did he refuse to do so (Matthew)? Must Jesus' followers keep the law if they are to enter the Kingdom (Matthew) or absolutely not (Paul)?

* In addition, I came to see that many of the books of the New Testament were not written by the people to whom they are attributed (Matthew and John) or by the people who claimed to be writing them (2 Peter, 1 Timothy). Most of these books appeared to have been written after the apostles themselves were dead; only eight of the twenty-seven books are almost certain to have been written by the people traditionally thought to be their authors ( The undisputed letters of Paul: Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians,and Philemon; plus the Revelation of John, although we aren't sure who this John was.)

* The Gospels for the most part do not provide disinterested factual information about Jesus, but contain stories that had been in oral circulation for decades before being written down. This makes it difficult to know what Jesus actually said, did, and experienced. Scholars have devised ways to get around these problems, but the reality is that the Jesus portrayed in these Gospels (for example, the divine being become human in the Gospel of John represents an understanding of who Jesus was, not an historical account of who he really was.

* There were lots of other Gospels available to the early Christians, as well as epistles, Acts, and apocalypses. Many of these claimed to be written by apostles, and on the surface such claims are no more or less plausible than the claims of the books that eventually came to make up the New Testament. This raises the question of who made the decisions about which books to include, and of what grounds they had for making the decisions. Is it possible that non-apostolic books were let into the canon by church leaders who simply didn't know any better? Is it possible that books that should have been included were left out?

*The creation of the Christian canon was not only the invention of the early Church. A whole range of theological perspectives came into existence, not during the life of Jesus or even through the teachings of his original apostles but later, as the Church grew and came to be transformed into a new religion rather than a rural sect of largely illiterate, Aramaic- speaking Jews. These included some of the most important Christian doctrines, such as that of a suffering Messiah, the divinity of Christ, the Trinity, and the existence of heaven and hell.

And so, just as I came to see the Bible as a very human book, I came to see Christianity as a very human religion. It did not descend from on high. It was created, down here on earth, among the followers of Jesus in the decades and centuries after his death. But none of this made me an agnostic.. that is the subject of another book.


  1. Probably the one question I get asked more than any other, by people who know I am an agnostic scholar of the New Testament, is why I continue to study and teach the New Testament if I no longer believe in it?

    This is a question that never made much sense to me. The Bible is the most important book in the history of Western Civilization. It is the most widely purchased, the most thoroughly studied, the most highly revered, and the most completely misunderstood book- ever! Why wouldn't I want to study it?

    .. I do not belittle anyone who continues to cherish the Bible as an inspired text, but in addition to reading the Bible devotionally there is a value in reading it historically. To be sure, a historical reading can show many of the shortcomings of the Bible- discrepancies, contradictions, faulty claims, impossible statements, and harmful ideologies. But a historical reading of the Bible can open up entirely new vistas in our understanding of the Bible and its multifarious messages... 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 foundations of our 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 we yet 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.

    "Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (and Why We Don't Know About Them)" by Bart D. Ehrman; HarperOne, 2009.

    Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina. Educated Moody Bible College and Princeton Theological Seminary.

  2. "Biblical narratives contain inaccuracies and instances of carelessness on the part of its human authors; the notion of the verbal inerrancy of the Bible suggests willful blindness."

    "There is also ambiguity in scripture, some passages can be expounded in four different ways. In a doubtful case everyone is free to chose the most likely conjecture"

    "There is no fixed New Testament canon."

    "Full appreciation of the Bible depends on reading it as literature"

    We should also have the prudence to apply ourselves to what God has done in history, and notable judgments left in writing, not only Holy Scripture"

    -John Calvin-

    from "John Calvin; A Sixteenth Century Portrait" by William J. Bouwsma; Oxford University Press, N.Y., 1988.

  3. It might seem difficult to reconcile Calvin's brief recognitions of the critical historical approach to the Bible with his over-all devotional approach or the doctrinaire character of his major productions, especially "The Institutes of the Christian Religion", the work he did in Geneva, or the place he came to hold in the Protestant denominations since the time of his death.

    First, it is important to recognize that the mass of historical research into the origins of the Bible and many of the discoveries thus made during the last two hundred years were not available to him. Still, he was able to come to very similar conclusions. It is not so incredible, however, when one figures in the prior work of the great humanist Erasmus, whom Calvin never explicitly denounced though all those around him in both Protestant and Catholic factions did.

    Then one has to understand the purpose for which "The Institutes of the Christian Religion" was written, as a compendium of Protestant reforms in both the belief systems and formal ceremonial structures of the Christian Church in Western Europe, an argument directed in defense against the attacks of the Roman Catholic Hierarchy and the highly conservative scholarly community at places like the University of Paris. In the political circumstances of the time any other kind of treatise would have been a complete waste of time and effort, not assisted the Protestant cause in any way. The economic and administrative issues underlying the theological disputes of his day were too important to ignore, though there are indications that, personally, Calvin might have preferred to labor in scholarly obscurity. At any rate, his view of the Biblical message mandated civic engagement. He was "called" to the defense of his protestant brethren.

    The same should be said about his work in Geneva which, never-the-less, did not go as smoothly or with the kind of unanimity as those with a limited knowledge of what happened there like to imagine. Yes, the City was under constant threat of a Catholic resurgence but there were also many competing religious and economic factions in the protestant camp several of which did not appreciate his efforts at all. His sermons were often greeted with derision and protest.
    As far as civic law and ceremonial ordinances were concerned, Calvin was more or less forced to "circle the wagons", on an experimental basis, as it were.

    Finally, though not perhaps exhaustively ( I am still researching this matter), it is important to understand that as far as Calvin's personal life goes- the strictly biographical details-we know as much about Calvin as do about Jesus. That is, next to nothing. One of the more amusing consequences of this ( in my view) is that accusations during his lifetime that he was actually an atheist and a pederast persist to the present day.

    Of course in those days anybody whose views diverged from whatever orthodoxy was ascendant was apt to be regarded as an atheist and pederasty was a common sin, especially among the ruling classes, though naturally the truly ambiguous role of women in late Middle Ages as both a form of chattel AND as representatives of the Virgin Mary, (plus widespread belief in witchcraft) was exceedingly difficult for all people to manage.