Jesus is just alright with him

To the author of "Jesus Interrupted," the man from Galilee was a radical Jewish prophet, not God. But in an interview, Bart Ehrman says history doesn't have to undermine Christian faith.

Published April 3, 2009 10:40AM (EDT)

Bart Ehrman's career is testament to the fact that no one can slice and dice a belief system more surgically than someone who grew up inside it. Raised as a not particularly devout Episcopalian in 1950s Kansas, the best-selling Bible scholar had a "born-again" experience as a high school sophomore and asked Jesus into his heart. Eager to study Holy Scripture full-time, he entered the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago -- motto: "Moody Bible Institute, where Bible is our middle name" -- where every professor and student had to sign a statement attesting that the Bible is the inerrant word of God, a divinely inspired document from its first page (Genesis 1:1) to its last (Revelation 22:21).

But almost immediately, Ehrman ran into a problem. It was an intellectual problem at first, but it soon became larger and harder to quarantine. In one of the first classes he took at Moody, he learned that none of the original texts of the New Testament exist. All we have are copies, made years later -- usually, many centuries later. In fact, the copies are copies of copies, and they're filled with errors or intentional changes made over decades or centuries by scribes. Burning with fervor to discover the true word of God, the authentic divine voice that had been obscured or changed by all-too-human writers, Ehrman decided to begin a serious study of the New Testament. He completed his undergraduate studies at Wheaton College, where he began studying ancient Greek, the original language of the New Testament. But there was still no answer to his original question: How could we know what the word of God was if all we had were error-riddled copies?

So Ehrman decided to plunge all the way in and immerse himself in the academic study of the texts of the New Testament. He entered the Princeton Theological Seminary, home to the world's leading authority in the field, Bruce Metzger. His literalist faith in and his devotional approach to the Bible were under increasing strain, but he managed to hold onto them for a while -- until a professor jotted a casual comment on one of Ehrman's papers. Ehrman was attempting to explain a passage from the Gospel of Mark in which Jesus refers to an event that took place "when Abiathar was the high priest." The problem is that the book in the Old Testament that Jesus is referring to states that not Abiathar but his father Ahimelech was the high priest. Ehrman came up with a convoluted argument to reconcile the contradiction, using Greek etymology to prove that Mark did not mean what he apparently said. Ehrman believed that his professor, a beloved and pious scholar named Cullen Story, would appreciate his argument as a fellow believer in biblical inerrancy.

Story's response, Ehrman wrote in his best-selling 2005 book "Misquoting Jesus," "went straight through me." "Maybe," Story scrawled at the end of Ehrman's paper, "Mark just made a mistake."

Story's comment proved fatal for Ehrman's belief that the Bible was the inerrant word of God. Realizing that his own argument was unconvincing, he was forced to acknowledge that yes, maybe Mark did make a mistake. "Once I made that admission, the floodgates opened," Ehrman wrote. "For if there could be one little, picayune mistake in Mark 2, maybe there could be mistakes in other places as well. Maybe, when Jesus says later in Mark 4 that 'the mustard seed is the smallest of all seeds on the earth,' maybe I don't need to come up with a fancy explanation for how the mustard seed is the smallest of all seeds when I know full well it isn't. And maybe these 'mistakes' apply to bigger issues. Maybe when Mark says that Jesus was crucified the day after the Passover meal was eaten (Mark 14:12, 15:25) and John says he died the day before it was eaten (John 19:14) -- maybe that is a genuine difference."

The dike of Ehrman's literalist belief had been breached, and no divine intervention would turn back the floodwaters. He came to believe that the Bible was "a human book from beginning to end. It was written by different human authors at different times and in different places to address different needs. Many of these authors no doubt felt they were inspired by God to say what they did, but they had their own perspectives, their own beliefs, their own views, their own understandings, their own theologies ... Mark did not say the same thing that Luke said because he did not mean the same thing as Luke."

Ehrman's demolition of biblical literalism in "Misquoting Jesus" is neatly summed up by an anecdote. "Occasionally I see a bumper sticker that reads, 'God said, it, I believe it, and that settles it.' My response is always, What if God didn't say it?" A lucid, accessible and entertaining guided tour of biblical scholarship, "Misquoting Jesus" makes it indubitably clear -- unless one simply decides in advance that all logic, scholarship, rules of historical evidence and rational thought do not apply to the Bible -- that God did not"say it." A bunch of human beings said a lot of different things over hundreds of years, a bunch of other human beings wrote down different versions of what they said, and yet another bunch of human beings decided -- also over hundreds of years -- which of these writings should be part of the Holy Book and which should not. This is simply the historical truth.

As Ehrman repeatedly points out, none of what he is saying is the least bit academically controversial. Even scholars who are devout Christians agree, and have for decades. The field of biblical textual studies is 300 years old; Ehrman's books simply present the accepted findings of that field for a mass audience. His own scholarly credentials are impeccable: As the James A. Gray Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, he has a deep and extensive knowledge of the field, knows the ancient languages the Bible was written in, and has published widely.

But Ehrman's scholarly standing did not soothe the evangelical Christians who were outraged by "Misquoting Jesus." Angered by what they took to be the book's subversive import, they attacked it as exaggerated, unfair and lacking a devotional tone. No less than three books were published in response to Ehrman's tome. While learned evangelical critics matched Ehrman Greek exegesis for Greek exegesis, the less erudite complained that he was an intellectual snob whose pedantic historical excurses had nothing to do with their living faith.

Ehrman's new book, "Jesus, Interrupted," will not lead many evangelicals and conservative Christians to invite him to talk to their Bible study groups. Picking up where "Misquoting Jesus" let off, it goes beyond the Bible's textual problems to look at deeper doctrinal inconsistencies and contradictions. Ehrman points out that Mark and Luke had radically different attitudes toward Jesus' death: Mark saw him as in doubt and despair on the way to the cross, while Luke saw him as calm. Mark and Paul saw Jesus' death as offering an atonement for sin, while Luke did not. Matthew believed that Jesus' followers had to keep the Jewish law to enter the kingdom of Heaven, a view categorically rejected by Paul. The conventional response to this is to try to "harmonize" the Bible by smashing all four Gospels together. But as Ehrman argues, this only creates a bogus "fifth Gospel" that doesn't exist.

Ehrman's critique is far from over. He points out that many of the books in the New Testament were not even written by their putative authors: only eight of its 27 books are almost certain to have been written by the people whose names are attached to them. He writes that scholars have tended to avoid the word "forged" because of its negative connotations, but argues convincingly that much of the Bible is, in fact, forged.

Then there's the problem of "which Bible?" As Ehrman notes, there were many other Gospels floating around in the days of the early Christians, many of which claimed to be written by apostles, and there's no historical reason to believe that some of these non-canonical gospels were any less worthy of being part of the Bible than the books that made it in. Later Christians excised some texts and included others for various reasons. Once one begins to look critically at what was left out and why, it becomes impossible to deny that the biblical canon was constructed by humans for human purposes.

Finally, and most devastatingly, Ehrman points out that "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," were not held by Jesus himself and were not contemporaneous with him. They developed later, "as the Church grew and came to be transformed into a new religion rather than a sect of Judaism." The doctrine of the trinity only appears once in the New Testament, and the doctrine that Jesus is equal but not identical to God is found in none of the four Gospels.

Perhaps most surprising, even to readers who have some familiarity with biblical scholarship, is Ehrman's argument -- which, again, is the mainstream position among biblical scholars -- that Jesus did not teach that he was divine. Only in one Gospel, John, does Christ call himself divine, but John's theology is radically different from that in the other three Gospels. To understand Jesus' attitude toward himself, Ehrman argues, we must remember who he was: a radical millenarian Jew. Like other Jewish prophets in the Palestine of his day, Jesus thought that a cosmic judge, the Son of Man, was coming soon to earth. But he did not regard himself as the Son of Man.

The old subversive line goes, "The last Christian died on the cross." But it would be more historically accurate to say that Jesus was not a Christian at all, but a Jewish apocalyptic prophet. It was only with his followers that "Christianity" came into existence. Ironically, Jesus preached a profoundly Jewish religion: It was the later Christians (including John and Paul) who turned Christianity into the virulently anti-Semitic religion it was to become.

As for Ehrman's own attitude toward Christianity, it evolved in a long and complex process. His realization that the Bible is an all-too-human document ended his literalist faith, but did not cause him to leave the church. Instead, he embraced Christianity as a "beautiful myth," in effect taking what he needed from it and leaving the rest. He practiced this "soft" Christianity for years, but abandoned it too. What ultimately led him to leave the church was a more profound issue: the problem of evil, what theologians call theodicy. In his 2008 book "God's Problem," Ehrman explains that he could no longer believe in an all-knowing and all-powerful God in a world in which an innocent child dies of hunger every five seconds.

Ehrman is hard to categorize. He's a bomb-throwing moderate, a non-dogmatic rationalist. Unlike outspoken critics of religion such as Sam Harris, he does not regard organized religion as dangerous, nor does he claim that any rational person of intellectual integrity must embrace the same conclusions he does. He insists that he is not out to convert anyone, and has nothing but respect for his fellow scholars who know the same historical things he does about the Bible, yet continue to be devout Christians.

At the same time, it's hard not to feel that Ehrman shares some of the irreverent glee, and maybe subversive purpose, of Mark Twain, who sent up literalist Christian belief in hilarious stories like "Captain Stormfield's Visit to Heaven." There's something delicious (for non-believers, anyway) about the implacable, dispassionate way that Ehrman reveals how the supposedly "divine truth" of Christianity was historically constructed.

Ehrman is a true agnostic. He's sophisticated enough to realize that the realms of rationality and faith may be separate, and he's respectful of the idea of the ineffable. But he himself does not believe in it, and his practice is thoroughly rational. For some of his most brilliant religious friends, Ehrman notes in "God's Problem," "religious faith is not an intellectualizing system for explaining everything. Faith is a mystery and an experience of the divine in the world, not a solution to a set of problems." Ehrman's comment: "I respect this view deeply and some days I wish that I shared it. But I don't."

I reached Ehrman by telephone at his home in Chapel Hill. In conversation, he was affable, thoughtful and unpretentious. I made a conscious decision to steer our conversation away from the specific scholarly arguments he makes in his books and toward his own views of faith and rationality. For me, as someone who regards religions that contain supernatural beliefs as culturally sanctioned superstitions, the idea that the Bible is a document written by non-divinely inspired humans, and that a first-century Palestinian Jew named Jesus was not the son of God, are truisms. I was more interested in Ehrman's thoughts about whether one can reject supernatural beliefs and still be a Christian, and the larger relationship between reason and religion.

"Misquoting Jesus" aroused a lot of controversy. Were you surprised by the reaction?

I wasn't surprised because a lot of Christians who see the Bible as the fundamental basis for their faith were taken aback to learn that we don't have the original copies of any of the books of the Bible. And not only do we not have any of the original copies, but we don't have any copies that are completely reliable. And that's troubling to people who think the words of the text are the very foundation of their faith. But I was a little surprised by the reaction of evangelical scholars. Nobody objected to any of the information that I presented. They agreed with everything I said but they just thought I made too much of it.

They try to argue that the inconsistencies you point out are unimportant, that they don't touch the central message of the Gospels or of the Bible. And yet, to a non-expert, the things you cite seem extremely important. You point out that John is radically different in its intellectual approach from the other three Gospels, that there are radically different accounts of the death of Jesus, that one Gospel says he had an encounter with the adulterous woman and one doesn't. And there are even bigger ones, that there's only one place in the Bible where the doctrine of the Trinity is found. I don't understand how one could maintain that these are not important. They seem on the face of it to be very important.

Right. And that's what I argue in the new book. I have a lot of reactions to people who say these things are unimportant, and one of them is that I just don't believe them. The people who spend the most time doing textual criticism, which means trying to reconstruct the original text using the surviving manuscripts, are the evangelical Christians. So if the differences aren't important, why are they wasting their time?

They're trying to arm themselves against precisely these kind of objections.

So what I argue in "Misquoting Jesus" is that some of these changes affect how a verse might be interpreted, or how an entire passage might be interpreted, and in some cases they affect how an entire book would be interpreted. So it may be true that nobody's overall doctrine [in the Gospels] is going to change. But I never argued that their entire doctrine is going to change. What I argued is that these changes in the manuscripts are important for interpreting these texts. And sometimes they're of crucial importance for interpreting these texts. And I don't know how anybody can deny that.

You say you don't believe that pursuing this kind of scholarship impacts one's belief. But I have difficulty understanding that. Once you begin to view the Bible as being humanly constructed, and study the history of how the biblical canon was constructed, it requires a mental schizophrenia to view the contingent, all-too-human doctrine that emerged from this process as something that contains the ultimate truth about the nature of reality. How do you reconcile those two ways of looking at the world?

Well, yeah, I can see how it would seem like schizophrenia. I think, though, the situation is this. People who are evangelical Christians, who think the Bible is the only source for truth and doctrine, have real problems with accepting that there can be discrepancies and contradictions and different points of view. But there are a lot of Christians who simply don't have that view of the Bible. If the Bible is not the be-all and end-all for somebody's faith, then the historical problems in the Bible don't really touch their faith.

It's almost a peculiarly American version of Christianity that says that to be a Christian you have to believe in the Bible. It's actually a modern invention, located in America and wherever American missionaries have gone out. But historically, Christianity has never been about belief in the Bible. So that historical problems don't shake up people who have a historically grounded understanding of the Bible.

I take your point that there are many sophisticated Christians who don't believe that everything in the Bible is literally true. And yet, in order to be a Christian, one has to subscribe to the fundamental tenets that are in the Bible. That's not really an option, is it?

Well, you know, part of it comes down to a debate over what really is a Christian. A lot of sophisticated Christian thinkers, theologians and biblical scholars would say that you shouldn't have an essentialist understanding of Christianity. You can't just define Christianity and then gauge whether somebody is that or not. I have friends who don't believe that Jesus was physically raised from the dead. But they still call themselves Christian, and they still believe Jesus is divine. They have a different understanding of what it means to be Christian from an evangelical understanding of what it means to be Christian.

But isn't that view not only different from the evangelical one but outside mainstream Christian beliefs?

It probably is, although people who hold this claim would say that it's also the view of the early Christians. And so they would claim some historical continuity with the earliest forms of Christian belief. Christianity is just a widely diverse phenomenon. That's why I wrote the last chapter in the book, "Is Faith Possible?" I'm against the idea of thinking that Christianity is just one thing and that you have to toe the line or else you can't be a Christian anymore. I want people to feel free to accept the historical conclusions that scholars have come to, and not feel like they can't accept these because they can't be Christians.

You teach in North Carolina and talk about how many of your undergraduate students are pretty devout and some of them are fundamentalists. Have you had any experiences in which either a student or their parents have come to you in anguish and said, "You wrecked my faith!"

[laughs] I probably teach an average of 300 students every year, and I've been here for 20 years. So that's 6,000 students. And 12,000 parents. And I have never gotten a phone call from a parent. It's surprising. I don't think I've ever gotten an e-mail from a parent. I think the students who find their faith challenged feel like I've done a service for them. I've done what a university professor is supposed to do, which is to make somebody think. And even the people who remain faithful Christians are forced to think. I'm not trying to convert people to become agnostics like me. I'm trying to get people to think. If I can make somebody a more thoughtful Christian, then I think I've succeeded in what I'm supposed to be doing.

Is America moving toward this more inclusive and less literalistic Christianity?

I think there are several things going on at once. You have the growth of very conservative Christianity, the form of Christianity growing faster than any other. To me, that's not surprising sociologically. We live in an age of such uncertainty, where absolute truths are being questioned, objectivity is being questioned, the economy has gone completely south and we've got wars abroad. So in times of uncertainty, people love to have clear answers. The conservative Christian churches provide certainty when people are looking for it.

At the same time, I'm seeing -- if you want to say on the left -- a far more accepting understanding of the diversity of Christianity, and the realization that Christianity is and always has been extremely diverse, and that we ought to be forgiving of differences. I see that as a very hopeful sign. I see the other as very frustrating and aggravating. But there are a lot of people who realize that Christianity is a much broader phenomenon than their fundamentalist neighbors want them to think.

Christianity in this broader interpretation could be seen as a kind of vessel into which one pours one's ethical or spiritual beliefs. You don't have to believe that Jesus was the son of God and is consubstantial with God the Father. You can say, "I like the idea of a human being who was so ethically pure and so noble that he gave his life for other human beings." You pick and choose, taking those elements of Christianity that work for you in your life. And you went through this stage of Christian belief yourself, right?

Yeah, that was the kind of Christianity I adopted at one point, when I gave up being an evangelical Christian. And it came after I realized all the historical problems with Christianity and with the Bible and the historical contingencies that led to the development of Christian doctrine. That was pretty much the view that I had.

Tell me about that phase you went through. I think a lot of people who don't have an institutional religious upbringing are interested in that kind of ambiguous spirituality. That sustained you for some time, didn't it?

That's right. For a number of years, I was that kind of Christian. Understanding the Christian myth as a powerful myth that informed my life. And I got to that point because I had been an evangelical Christian who thought the Bible was infallible and was the absolute guide to all faith and practice. And when that was swept away from me, after I had done my research as a graduate student, I still wanted to cling on to Christianity. I couldn't cling on to the idea that the Bible was my infallible guide, so it made sense to me that I would grab on to this other understanding that you would strip away the myth of the Bible, or in a sense almost remythologize the Bible in modern terms.

Would you describe it as a state of faith, or as something other than faith?

I think it was a matter of faith. The thing is, I think everybody has faith in something. Human beings believe in things. My agnosticism is a kind of faith. I have faith in the possibilities of history and science. I've got faith in things still. So that was my faith at the time -- a faith in a kind of mythological interpretation of these religious views that I accepted as being in some metaphorical sense true.

You say it was the problem of evil, theodicy, that caused you to leave the church. Was there one dramatic moment? Did something happen to you? Or was it more of a long-term process that led you to be unable to reconcile your previous religious views with the problem of evil?

It was a long-term process for me. I didn't have any major catastrophe happen that made me think "God does not exist." But I thought about it for a long, long time. I actually taught courses on the problem of suffering in the Bible. Some people seem surprised. They say, "You always knew about the problem of suffering, so why after so many years would that finally get to you?" And it's because, for a long time, I held on to the traditional solutions that people have, but the more you look around the world, the harder it is to sustain those ideas. And I finally got to a point where I just didn't believe it anymore. I just didn't believe that there's a God who's looking over this world and is in some sense active within it, who's intervening to solve problems of suffering and is answering prayer. I just don't believe that.

I presume that lack of belief would apply not just to Christianity but to any monotheistic religion that has an all-knowing and supposedly beneficent God. Because the same problem would arise.

I think it does. I get e-mails from a lot of people who are trying to convert me to something else. [laughs].

Do you get a lot from Buddhists?

Some Buddhists. But actually I get a lot from Mormons. They tell me that the New Testament may be problematic, but I should read the Book of Mormon. [laughs]. But the most common one I get is from the Muslims. But I think any monotheistic religion's going to have exactly the same problem, so I'm not really thinking that I'm going to switch over to something else.

What's your feeling about the ongoing clash between religion and rationalism in this country? The Discovery Institute's arguments for intelligent design, the Texas School Board arguing against the validity of evolution -- it's like we've had an ongoing Scopes trial in this country for 80 years.

I know. You just wish they would get over it and wake up to reality. But it doesn't seem to happen. I grew up in Kansas and it's shameful what has happened in Kansas with creationism and evolution. But it ebbs and flows, and partly it ebbs and flows for political reasons. And with this new administration, there are good signs. So hopefully this will have some impact.

If more people embrace a personal Christianity, a pick-and-choose Christianity, and if their beliefs continue to be diffused and diluted, is the church itself going to cease to exist in any meaningful way?

Well, usually, people who argue are people who assume that the church is the primary force for good in the world. And that without it, all hell is going to break out. I don't think that's true. I do think the church does a lot of good in the world, and I think I'd probably be sad to see the church go because of all the charity work that gets done through the church. But on the other hand, the church is also the source of a lot of oppression, and war and all sorts of evils.

y "the church," do you mean institutional organized religion in general?

Yeah, organized religion generally, but Christianity in particular. It's the main force, in this country at least, of organized religion. And so I would imagine that other institutions would take its place. For me personally, one of the reasons I was afraid of becoming an agnostic was that if I did, I worried that I would have no moral compass and my life would end up in shambles. And it turns out that's simply not true. I'm as moral now as I was when I was a Christian. And I think that's true of society. Whether the church is in it or not, people are going to be basically as moral as they are now.

If institutional religion were to fade away, would the world be a better place?

I don't know if it would be or not. Some of the new atheists argue that the world would be a better place. Sam Harris thinks that. I don't think Christianity or monotheistic religions are the source of all evil in the world. I think the problem is people just do wretched things. And they're going to do wretched things whether they've got a religious justification for it or some other justification for it. I don't think the church is either holding the world together or causing it to fall apart.

By Gary Kamiya

Gary Kamiya is a Salon contributing writer.

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