I recently had a conversation with a man who viewed Christianity through the lens of Bart Ehrman’s work. In particular, this man mentioned his reliance upon Ehrman’s book called “Misquoting Jesus.” I haven’t read any books by Ehrman, though I’ve now read snippets online, thanks in part to Google Books.
Ehrman’s approach to scripture is highly praised by some. One reviewer was convinced that the emperor Constantine controlled the Council of Nicea, and through it, determined the canon of scripture we have today and the doctrine accepted as “orthodox.” If that notion sounds familiar, it’s because you heard about it in Dan Brown’s fictional novel, The DaVinci Code. While that novel was still top on the bestseller lists, I happened to be in a Border’s bookstore in Madison, Wisconsin, and couldn’t help overhearing a loud conversation about it between two crunchy females, in which one exclaimed (so that all nearby could hear), “I’m so glad that the truth is finally coming out!” To them, Christianity as a whole was finally debunked.
I don’t know if this is Ehrman’s view too, but a good number of his disciples seem to hold it. His work that I perused on Google Books compiles several non-canonical books from the first few centuries after Christ, claiming that the are “lost scriptures” of Christianity. Reading his translations, it seems clear to me that they were not so much “lost” as simply rejected. They do not have the character of the New Testament scriptures, and contradict it in fundamental ways. Beside that, they all seem to have been written at relatively late dates in comparison with the New Testament scriptures. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Ehrman is able to hold these non-canonical books in similar regard to the New Testament canon not so much because he has elevated the importance of the non-canonical books (though that may also have happened), but because he has taken a rather low view of the New Testament scriptures. In particular, he doesn’t seem to regard their self-claimed divine inspiration (e.g. 1 Peter 1:12, 2 Peter 1:21, John 20:31, 2 Timothy 3:16) as something worth believing. If these writings are not divinely inspired, then they are merely the products of various individuals, replete with redactions and copyist changes both intentional and unintentional. If they are not divinely inspired, then there’s no reason to suppose that God has preserved them in any way through the history of the Church. If they are not divinely inspired, then it would make sense that the development of the New Testament canon was a mere exercise of human power and influence.
If the New Testament writings are not divinely inspired, though they claim to be, then there is no more reason to base our faith upon them then upon the writings of William Shakespeare.
However, if we believe the claim of divine inspiration, then all of those things are reversed. We are then not at liberty to dispose of any part of the scriptures, because there is no way for a mere creature to judge the writings of his Creator. We must even believe that the transmission of the New Testament text through the human work of scribes was somehow governed by God so that His original message was preserved. What’s more, we are forced to believe what those writings say about Jesus, and that’s really the center of this controversy. It’s not so much about the Bible as about the one Person who is both true God, one with the Father, and true Man, born of the virgin Mary. It’s about our utter need for a Savior, and the way in which He had to accomplish our salvation all alone, without any help from us. It seems clear to me that those are the things which Ehrman’s disciples (generally speaking) really want to circumvent.
The scholarly credentials attached to Ehrman are impressive, and at least some of his disciples seem to think that those credentials should put an end to all argument against his work. However, in my slight reading of that work, I have found at least one obvious historical error. He claims that the Jewish canon (the Old Testament) was not assembled until well after the Christian era began. However, it’s clear that the Septuagint (a common Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament) existed well before Christ. Granted, there are details about the Septuagint which are unknown to many casual Bible students, but Ehrman’s implication is that even the selection of our Old Testament books took place under some suspicious Christian influence. Not so. That the Septuagint also included apocryphal parts considered important by many Jews makes no difference. That the Septuagint was not really a single, authoritative version also makes no difference. The fact is that the Old Testament books were assembled together long before Jesus was born, so that He could refer to them all (The TaNaCH: Torah or Law, Neviim or Prophets, and Chetuvim or Writings) in Matthew 23:35 and Luke 11:51, which mention the first and last murders recounted in the Jewish scriptures. The historical evidence against Ehrman’s claim is not limited to the Septuagint, either. Yet for a Christian whose faith is in Jesus Christ, and is based upon the Bible, the decisive evidence against Ehrman’s claim is Jesus’ own acceptance and promotion of the Old Testament canon.
It’s not hard to see that there is a chasm here between two parties, or even two worldviews. It’s not between the scholarly and the unscholarly, but between those who believe that the biblical scriptures are intrinsically holy and those who believe they are made “holy” by the decisions and influence of mortal men. It’s a divide of faith, more than anything else. There are many people who have been raised on the notion that the most worthy god we have is Science. It’s the only religion allowed in American public schools. Meanwhile, Christianity has always embraced science as the beneficial study of Creation, but not having authority to trump what God has revealed. Many of the world’s most significant scientific discoveries were made by Christians, based upon their biblical worldview. Ehrman’s scholarship, on the other hand, represents the application of Science-as-religion to the sacred scriptures of Christianity.