I just read Timothy Paul Jones’ little book Misquoting Truth: A Guide to the Fallacies of Bart Ehrman’s “Misquoting Jesus”, which sets about to expose the “fallicies” of not one but two of Bart Ehrman’s recent books, Misquoting Jesus and Lost Christianities. Jones’ book is full of entertaining Star Wars references, making it worth its weight in Republic Credits for that reason alone. But it seems to me that the book’s subtitle is almost as overstated as some of the claims Ehrman himself makes. There is really only one overarching fallacy of Ehrman’s that the book (in my view fairly) takes on and challenges, namely the either-or thinking that led him from fundamentalism to agnosticism. In Ehrman’s view, the facts of text criticism and the study of early Christian diversity lead one to abandon faith. Although I think that at times Jones does insufficient justice to the importance and implications of the historical uncertainties Ehrman highlights, he rightly points out that what Ehrman regards as bad news for Christians is in fact only bad news (and perhaps only news) to fundamentalist, King James only extremists. For well-informed Christians, Ehrman’s books merely provide information that will lead to a better understanding of the Bible and of early Christianity.
In my class on the Bible this week I had the chance to introduce historical study and discuss how it works. It is certainly true that historical study can be disconcerting for religious believers who are not used to applying such an approach to their sacred texts. What is most potentially troubling is the inability of historical study to confirm those things that are most important to conservative religious believers, namely miracles. Jones’ book doesn’t address this, but it is extremely important.
I actually come right out and ask my students what sort of evidence they would require in order to be persuaded that another student who was pregnant had become so by miraculous rather than ordinary means. (I tell them, of course, that I am assuming the other student is a female – otherwise the evidence for a miracle would be pretty good). One suggested perhaps the degree of previously-established trust would be important, but when pressed did not seem willing to commit to believing even someone they knew well and trusted if such a claim to virginal conception was at issue. The truth is that, as Carl Sagan famously put it, “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”. The issue for religious believers is not really whether or not Jesus really said any number of things in the New Testament – we have a reasonable degree of certainty about some important things that he said, and a legitimate basis for believing he probably didn’t say certain things the Gospels claim. But when it comes to the miracles, only the credulous would find themselves persuaded that such things happened in our time on the basis of testimony and evidence offered to them first-hand. How could any historian be expected to conclude that such things are probable based on ancient texts?
Let me draw attention to two important articles on scholarship and faith. The first is from Biblical Archaeology Review and is entitled “Losing Faith: How Scholarship Affects Scholars“. It is about two who did and two who didn’t, and it is telling that the two who did were starting from fundamentalism. The fundamentalist preachers’ claim that you either believe the whole Bible or toss it in the trash is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Those who are made aware of the middle ground are less likely to swing from one extreme to the other.
The second is actually about Bart Erhman’s own viewpoint and experience, and is entitled “The Book of Bart”, and appeared in the Washington Post.