Bart Ehrman’s Book, Interrupted
Ben Witherington, in the first of a two-part review of Ehrman’s new book:
Now it is always a danger to over generalize when we are dealing with as important a matter as the ‘truth about the Bible’. And frankly it is simply untrue to say that most scholars or the majority of Bible scholars or the majority of serious critical scholars would agree with Bart Ehrman in his conclusions about this or that NT matter. NT scholarship is a many splintered thing, and Ehrman’s position certainly does not represent a majority view, or the critical consensus about such matters. At best, one has to say yes and no repeatedly to what Bart takes as the critical consensus about such matters. Bart Ehrman, like the more radical members of the Jesus Seminar (e.g. Robert Funk cf. Robert Price) represents a minority position which has indeed been very vocal in proselytizing for their point of view. So this book should have come with a caveat emptor— “Buyer Beware: Hyperbolic claims about what most or the majority of critical scholars of the NT think will be frequent in this tome”. The appeal to authority or expertise in any case does not really settle much. The issue is—what is the evidence and why should we draw this or that conclusion? The other issue is— why mislead the general public about what “the majority of serious critical scholars” have been saying? Perhaps an end run has been done from the outset— you define a small circle of scholars as the serious ones, the critical ones, the real scholarly thinkers, the real historians, and then having defined your own group narrowly enough, you then say—“the majority of such people think…” Evangelicals are sometimes just as guilty of this ploy as others, but in any case, it does not help when one misrepresents the actual state of play of things among scholars to the general public.
Bart reminds us early on that the method of studying the Bible taught in most mainline seminaries is “the historical critical method”. It is also, in fact perhaps the main method of teaching the Bible in evangelical seminaries today as well. And two of the major things one is taught, quite correctly in the study of this method are: 1) ancient historical texts must be studied in their original historical contexts to be properly understood; and 2) modern post-Enlightenment historiography is at odds with the historiography of most ancients, particularly when it comes to the issue of God’s involvement in human history.
There is a further corollary—in order to understand the Gospels or Acts, or Paul’s letters, or Revelation, one needs to understand the features and characteristics of such ancient literature—in short their respective genres. The Gospels are written like ancient biographies, not modern ones, or in the case of Luke-Acts like an ancient work of Hellenistic (and Septuagintal) historiography. Unless one knows the conventions and limitations that apply to such literature, one is in no position at all to evaluate whether there are “inconsistencies” “errors” or other problematic features of such literature. Error can only be assessed on the basis of what an author is attempting to do and what literary conventions he is following. Let us take an example Bart uses from p. 7 of his book—the fact that in John the cleansing of the temple comes early in the Gospel account, whereas in the Synoptics it is found in the Passion narrative. He is right of course that some modern conservative Christians have attempted to reconcile these differences by suggesting Jesus did the deed twice— once at the beginning and once at the end of the ministry. The problem is, that this conclusion is just as anachronistic (and genre ignoring) as the conclusion that the Gospels contradict each other on this point. What do I mean?
If you actually bother to read ancient biographies (see e.g. Tacitus’s Life of Agricola, or Plutarch’s famous parallel lives) you will discover that the ancients were not pedants when it comes to the issue of strict chronology as we are today. The ancient biographical or historiographical work operated with the freedom to arrange there material in several different ways, including topically, geographically, chronologically, to mention but three. Yes they had a secondary interest in chronology in broad strokes, but only a secondary interest in that.
If one studies the Fourth Gospel in detail and closely in the Greek, comparing it to other ancient biographies what one learns is that it is a highly schematized and edited product, and the sign narratives are arranged theologically not primarily chronologically. And whilst this might cause a modern person some consternation, it is not a reason to say that John contradicts the Synoptics on this Temple cleansing matter. The Fourth Gospel begins by showing that Jesus replaces the institutions of Judaism with himself—a theological message (he is the Passover lamb, he is the Temple where God’s presence dwells etc.). The Synoptic writers are likely presenting a more chronologically apt picture of when this event actually happened. But strict chronology was not the major purpose of the Fourth Evangelist, we should not fault him for not giving us information we might want to have, or for focusing on the theological import of the event, rather than its timing. Such was the freedom, within limits, of ancient biographies and histories. I must disagree with the conclusion then when Bart says “Historically speaking, then, the accounts are not reconcilable.” (p. 7). False. This is only so if one insists on a flat modern anachronistic reading of the text which pays no attention to what the authors are attempting.
Anachronistic reading is Ehrman’s specialty, and it sure seems to sell.