Questions for Bart Ehrman/Ehrman sort-of defends Christianity

So in my previous post I mentioned that Bart Ehrman’s view, which I share, is that Jesus’ earliest followers didn’t think he was God, and on top of that Jesus was an apocalyptic preacher who went around saying that God was going to establish a literal Kingdom of Heaven on earth very soon. Since Jesus being God is important to orthodox Christian theology, and since the Kingdom of Heaven thing obviously didn’t happen, these seem to create problems for Christianity.

However, Ehrman claims to be surprised when people call him “anti-Christian,” and also claims:

I my view, the only thing I attack in my writings (and not even directly) is a fundamentalist and conservative evangelical understanding of Christianity. But to say for that reason that I attack Christianity is like saying that if you don’t like raspberry sherbet you don’t like any kind of ice cream. You can make the case (and you would be right) that sherbet isn’t ice cream at all, so not liking it has nothing to do with ice cream. But even if you think sherbet is close enough to ice cream that you may as well call it ice cream, by saying you don’t like raspberry sherbet you’re simply saying that there is one flavor of it you would rather not eat, given the choice (pp. 35-36).

He doesn’t say this, but this passage seems to imply that fundamentalist and conservative evangelical Christianity isn’t Christianity at all, just like sherbet isn’t really ice cream at all. I would really like to hear Ehrman’s defense of this claim. Maybe he’d claim that Biblical inerrancy is a new idea. I’ve written before about why this is false.

Maybe Ehrman thinks there’s scholarship that’s shown people like Augustine and Aquinas didn’t meant to say something other than what they seem to have been saying at first glance, but I doubt it. I’ve read the Rogers and McKim book arguing something like that view, and John Woodbridge’s critique of Rogers and McKim, and even though I would probably agree with Woodbridge on little else, found his arguments far more convincing.

I really do wonder if that’s where Ehrman gets it from, because the idea that inerrancy is a new idea in the history of Christianity seems to be popular in the religious studies world. And it’s often asserted with very little evidence. Rogers and McKim’s book is the only real scholarly defense of the view I’ve ever found. So is it Ehrman’s source, and if so, does he just accept their views because lots of other academics he knows do, or can he explain what arguments he found compelling? And if he has some other source, what was it?

But the question of whether fundamentalist and conservative evangelical Christianity is really Christianity isn’t what most interests me about that quote. What most interests me is how he reconciles what he says there with other things he says later in the book. For example, on p. 143 Ehrman is explicit that, “What I think is that Jesus really existed but that the Jesus who really existed was not the person most Christians today believe in.”

Later, on p. 301, Ehrman goes even further. He says that the reason Jesus is portrayed as an apocalypticist (someone who thinks the apocalypse is coming soon) in our earliest sources but not in our later sources is that when his predictions failed to come true, Christians altered his teachings. And, “This move to deapocalypticize Jesus was enormously successful. Down through the Middle Ages and on to today, the vast majority of people who have considered Jesus have not thought of him as an apocalyptic preacher.”

In other words, Ehrman rejects things most Christians believe about Jesus today. He rejects things the overwhelming majority of Christians have believed about Jesus throughout history. And he knows this. How then, can Ehrman say he’s only attacking fundamentalist Christianity? Maybe he wants to say that while he thinks there are good arguments that most brands of Christianity are false, he doesn’t think they’re especially harmful, so he only wants to “attack” fundamentalist Christianity. But even if he makes that distinction, that makes it a lot easier to understand why many people see him as anti-Christian, and he left out something important when he initially denied being anti-Christian.

A clever conservative-leaning theologian could say that while Jesus was God, in becoming incarnated God limited himself in ways that included making it possible for Him to be mistaken about when the apocalypse would be. Is this how Ehrman expects Christians to react to reading what he has to say about Jesus? Because I suspect most Christians would have a hard time accepting that Jesus was wrong about something so important, which is why there was a move to deapocalypticize Jesus in the first place.

So I wonder what Ehrman was really thinking when he wrote these things. But I still haven’t gotten to what I think is the most puzzling paragraph in the book, on p. 313:

Jesus is often thought of as a great moral teacher, and I think that is right. But it is also important to understand why he insisted on a moral lifestyle guided by the dictates of love. It is not for the reasons that people offer today for being moral. Today many people think that we should behave ethically for the good of society so that we can all get along in the long haul. The end was coming soon, and people needed to prepare for it. The ethics of Jesus’s teaching were not designed simply to make society better. They were designed to convince people to behave in appropriate ways so that when the Son of Man came, they would be among the elect and brought into the kingdom instead of being destined for either eternal torment or annihilation. Jesus’s ethics were driven by an apocalyptic agenda, and anyone who transplants them into a different, nonapocalyptic setting has ripped them out of their own context and pretended that their original context is of no significance to their meaning.

My first thought when I read this is: what does Ehrman even mean by saying Jesus is a great moral teacher? For most people, incorrect predictions of apocalypse put you in the “nutcase” category, and disqualify you from being a great moral teacher. So what does Ehrman really mean?

My second thought is that this is a pretty strong rebuke to liberal Christians, because with a few exceptions they’re just as guilty of taking Jesus’ words out of context as conservatives are. And later on (pp. 334-335), when he complains about how Jesus gets invoked in modern political disputes, it’s obvious that his critique logically applies to liberals to, and there are even some things that could be construed as covert jabs at liberal Christians. So how can Ehrman claim he’s only opposed to fundamentalist Christianity?

My guess is that Ehrman believes Biblical scholarship has a good case against Christianity (in all but a few very idiosyncratic forms), but thinks he’ll be more effective in reaching people if he claims to only oppose fundamentalism, and allow fundamentalists to believe they can become liberal Christians instead of rejecting Christianity altogether. Given that Ehrman is a college professor in North Carolina, I can understand why he would do this. But I wonder how effective it really is. In the book, he mentions that his students are still often unhappy with his approach. Does he really think he’d lose anything by being franker with his readers and his students?

A final complaint: There are a couple points where Ehrman makes a couple of really unfair swipes about atheists. For example:

There are certain agnostics and atheists who claim that since, say, the Gospels are part of Christian sacred scripture, they have less value than other books for establishing historical information…

The (sometime) atheist opinion of the Bible as nonhistorical is no better than the (typical) fundamentalist opinion. The reality is that the authors of the books that became the Bible did not know that they were producing books that would later be considered scripture, and they probably had no intention of producing scripture (p. 72).

I agree with Ehrman that the fact that one book (say, the Gospel of Mark) made it in to the canon of Christian scripture and another (say, the Gospel of Thomas) didn’t is no strike against the reliability of Mark relative to Thomas. But it’s perfectly fair to point out the the fact that the Bible is a holy book when criticizing its historical accuracy, if it’s short hand for saying (and this is what I would mean if I said that) that when a book is explicitly a religious text, and attributes all manner of impossible things to said religion’s founder, that does count against it’s reliability relative to secular historical accounts.

But more importantly, even if some atheists were making the mistake Ehrman accuses them of, that wouldn’t make their views no better than those of fundamentalists. The fundamentalist view of the Bible requires you to be either ignorant of or amazingly in denial about the Bible’s inaccuracies and contradictions. Just because a view is wrong doesn’t make it no better than fundamentalism.

Similarly, at one point (p. 337) Ehrman refers to mythicists as “militant atheists.” As I’ve said before, I hate this term. There are real religious militants out there, and atheists who are doing nothing worse than saying things Ehrman finds wrong or obnoxious don’t deserve to be equated with them. Even if Ehrman didn’t mean to do that, people wrongly equate atheists they dislike with fundamentalists often enough (see Ehrman, above) that people should be really careful not to encourage that kind of nonsense.

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