Deconstructing Bart Ehrman

Claude Monet's paintings of the Rouen Cathedral

Claude Monet’s paintings of the Rouen Cathedral

Back before cable and the internet, we used to depend on Uncle Walter for news. A consummate professional, CBS News anchorman Walter Cronkite could always be relied on to get his facts straight and the questions of the day answered with precision.

Today, the inescapable 24/7 news cycle and the tsunami of information have biased us to think of everything as an experience in journalism, where carefully arranged factoids lead us like Hansel’s pebbles back to the truth.

In truth, this materialistic, hard-evidence bias of ours leads to a peculiarly modern way of framing history and the events of the day.

It is impossible to understand the Bible, much less discover the God who is revealed there, by pretending to be journalists asking gotcha questions.

This does not mean we must check our brains at the door of the church. Jesus said the greatest commandment of God is to love him with all of your heart, soul, and mind.

That implies a God who expects us to pursue the truth with intelligence. It also points up one of the ways ancient writers of the scriptures saw the world differently than we do: they believed that every human being has a moral center, the soul, which is capable of responding to God’s truth, directing our decisions, and accepting responsibility — eternally — for our moral choices.

The Bible was written by men who were no less intelligent than we are, but who nevertheless saw life very differently than we do. They saw God at the center of everything.

If we claim to want to understand the Bible but are dismissive of the cultural-historical perspectives of its writers, or worse, if we read it through the blue-blocker lenses of our modern biases about truth and human nature, we just won’t get it.

In biblical scholarship circles, they speak of a historical critical method of reading Scripture.

[In the historical critical method] …two of the major things one is taught, quite correctly … 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. — Ben Witherington, Bart Interrupted — A detailed analysis of ‘Jesus Interrupted’, Part One

Prof. Bart Ehrman is an author and student of the Bible who has written two very controversial but popular books about Christianity: Misquoting Jesus: The story behind who changed the Bible and why (2005) and Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the hidden contradictions in the Bible (2009).

In an excellent, two-part analysis at his blog, Prof. Ben Witherington carefully examines Ehrman’s arguments and concludes that he has failed to apply the requirements of historical criticism, causing Ehrman’s modern biases to lead him astray in his search for biblical truth.

Ehrman’s Jesus Interrupted is often wrong and thoroughly misleading. His primary thesis is that there are apparent inconsistencies between the various books of the New Testament about the journalistic facts of what happened to whom, which have created massive distortions about Christianity and a great cover-up aimed at keeping the public in the dark about the truth about Jesus and the modern Christian church.

Serious charges, if they were true.

Prof. Witherington, and Dr. Ehrman, who have similar academic backgrounds, have reached entirely different conclusions about the New Testament. Witherington has responded to Ehrman’s book in great detail here (part 1) and here (part 2).

In an age when the DaVinci Code has been accepted as fact by many, Christians need to familiarize themselves with Ehrman’s books and the rebuttals of people, like Ben Witherington and others, who take biblical scholarship seriously.

Not only does Prof. Witherington do a fine job of countering Ehrman’s claims, but for people like me whose knowledge of biblical criticism is pretty thin, Witherington’s two pieces serve as an excellent introduction to better understand the perspectives of the first-century authors of the New Testament.

I love art and had a chance to see works by many of the great masters on a trip to Paris a few years back. In this excerpt, Witherington uses an example from Claude Monet to explain the disconnect between the Bible’s ancient writers and our modern, journalistic biases about what is, and isn’t, true:

The Gospels are not, and never were intended to be inspected as if they were ancient photographs of Jesus taken with a high resolution, all seeing lens. On the contrary these documents are much more like portraits, and portraits always are selective, tendentious, perspectival. Let me illustrate this point.

One of my favorite Impressionist painters is Claude Monet, and I really love his series of painting done of Rouen Cathedral. These paintings were done in the late 1890s and they depict the front face of the Cathedral from slightly different angles of incidence, and in different lighting. But in each case it is recognizably the same cathedral with the same basic shape, from the same basic frame of reference.

Let us suppose for a minute then that the Gospels are like these paintings. Now it would be totally pedantic to have an argument that went as follows: “In this painting Monet depicts the color of the front façade of the cathedral as being gray, but in this picture he paints it as being a yellowish shade, and in this picture a pinkish shade. Which is it? Surely one must be right and the other depictions wrong.”

Of course the proper response to this silly discourse is that they are all right, because they attempt to depict the appearance of the building at different times of day from slightly different angles. And no art critic in their right mind would think of suggesting that one painting was in error compared to the other. My point is simple. The Gospels are not works of modern biography or historiography and they should not be evaluated by such canons. (emphasis mine) — Ben Witherington, Bart Interrupted: A detailed analysis of ‘Jesus Interrupred’, Part One

Photo credit: A montage of three of Claude Monet’s paintings of the Rouen Cathedral.

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  1. I like the analogy with Monet’s painting.

  2. Jacob Blonk says

    What is the real name of the creator: YaHWeH and his Son Yashua or God and Jezus?