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.

  • jamessweet

    I’m not an expert in Biblical historicity, so maybe you can correct me if I am wrong here… but regarding the “great moral teacher” BS, my impression was that even if we accept a historical Jesus, a lot of the really kind and moral and nice stuff the Biblical Jesus said, e.g. the “he who is without sin cast the first stone” story, are well-known to have been added at a much later date.

    Am I mistaken in that impression?

    • durham669

      Not only that but most Christians forget that Jesus wasn’t just a nice guy. Here’s a few examples right from the Gospels:

      Matthew 10:34-35
      Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword. For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter in law against her mother in law.

      Luke 12

      Suppose ye that I am come to give peace on earth? I tell you, Nay; but rather division: For from henceforth there shall be five in one house divided, three against two, and two against three. The father shall be divided against the son, and the son against the father; the mother against the daughter, and the daughter against the mother; the mother in law against her daughter in law, and the daughter in law against her mother in law.

      Luke 14:26

      If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple.

      Not a very nice loving guy after all. Of course the cafeteria Christians gloss over these parts.

  • Raging Bee

    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.

    The passage you quoted “implies” nothing of the sort. In fact, he’s disputing that sort of claim as it was applied to HIS version of Christianity. The “sherbet” in this case is his interpretation, and he’s saying that whether or not his interpretation is a form of “Christianity,” his statements cannot be construed as an attack on Christianity.

    Seriously, why are you so quick to read something into a quote that clearly isn’t there?

    • Chris Hallquist

      There is no “his” version of Christianity. Ehrman is an agnostic.

      And here’s the two things he presents as analogous:
      (1) Disliking raspberry sherbet doesn’t make you anti-icecream
      (2) Disliking fundamentalist Christianity doesn’t make you anti-Christian

      The analogy makes the most sense if Ehrman doesn’t think fundamentalist Christianity is Christianity, just like raspberry sherbet isn’t ice cream.

      • vinnyjh

        There was a “his” version of Christianity for many years though. Ehrman became disenchanted with fundamentalism while working on his PhD, but he remained a liberal Christian for some time until the problem of suffering finally convinced him that he could no longer affirm the existence of the Christian God. I think that most of his ideas about the historical Jesus and New Testament studies in general were formed at a time when he still considered himself a committed Christian.

  • Ace of Sevens

    I agree with this. Ehrman himself identifies as agnostic and from his works likes God’s Problem, it’s pretty clear that he’s rejected anything resembling the traditional Christian view of God outright. Can he please lay out how exactly these militants are different from his position? He’s being pretty vague. I would think Stalin was a militant atheist. Madalyn Murray O’Hair was a strident atheist. People who think explicitly religious texts should be looked at with suspicion are just sensible. Note everyone believes this about religions they don’t believe in. It’s hardly restricted to atheists. If he’s trying to compare it to works with an obvious political agenda, he has a point, but there’s still a difference in degree.

  • durham669

    Our only reliable record of the existence of Jesus is the Gospels. Yet, the Gospels are full of lies:

    Was Mary a virgin when she gave birth to Jesus? Of course not.
    Are both Mary and Joseph related to King David? Of course not.
    Did Jesus rise from the dead three days after his death?
    Did Jesus perform miracles as described in the Gospels?

    Isn’t the Jesus of the bible analogous to Santa Claus? Sure, Santa Claus is based on a real person but Santa Claus surely doesn’t exist. Likewise, Jesus as described in the bible didn’t exist. Did a real person go around preaching the end of the world? Okay, sure. But that person wasn’t the character that is described in the Gospels.

  • mnb0

    “it’s reliability relative to secular historical accounts.”

    That’s why we have historians – especially those who specialize in Antiquity, like Dutchman Jona Lendering.

    With precious few examples every single text from Antiquity was riddled with morality.
    That’s why Duram’s logic is just a fallacy. In his logic about all Antique’s texts are full of lies, hence we can know nothing.

    • durham669

      I don’t think I understand YOUR logic mnbo. That the bible is full of lies is only disputed by the fundamentalists. Was there a worldwide flood? Of course not. Did Noah gather two of every animal for his Ark. Again, of course not. It’s a fairy tale. And not a very good one. What’s the morality lesson of the flood? God hated his creation so much that he decided to start over. Be good or the Lord will kill you? The story of the flood has God killing all innocent babies worldwide because God make a mistake. Are you telling me that’s a morality lesson? Good grief.

      And isn’t it quaint that the bible tells that rainbows are a sign from God that he loves us. So there were no rainbows before the flood?

  • J. J. Ramsey

    I think at least part of what may be going on is that Ehrman is aware that there are plenty of religious scholars whose views are substantially similar to his, yet they remain religious nonetheless, for reasons that I don’t quite grok. Ehrman offers little or nothing that they would perceive as a threat to their beliefs, so he’s not attacking their take on Christianity, or Judaism, or whatnot.

    • Chris Hallquist

      Oh sure. So Ehrman isn’t attacking all of Christianity. But it’s also clear that the things he says create problems for much more than just fundamentalist Christianity.

  • Annatar

    Last sentence:

    “Even if Ehrman didn’t mean to do that, people wrongly atheists they dislike with fundamentalists…”

    Did you mean to put “equate” between “wrongly” and “atheists?”

    • Chris Hallquist


  • clarissa

    Its hilarious to see atheists get upset over the atheist Ehrman, whom they loved for his critiques of the bible, giving even a speck of credence to Jesus.

    I love the smell of atheists bashing each other in the morning!

    • Chris Hallquist

      Clarissa, read my post again. I’m not upset over Ehrman “giving even a speck of credence to Jesus.” For one thing, I agree with Ehrman that Jesus very likely did exist.

      What I find puzzling is how Ehrman could claim to consider Jesus a “great teacher” when he thinks Jesus incorrectly predicted an immanent Kingdom of Heaven. I’m guessing you’re a Christian, do you accept Ehrman’s claim that Jesus made false prophecies? Would you consider that compatible with your theology? Would you consider it compatible with his being a “great teacher”?

      Unless you’d answered “yes” to one of those questions (and if you did, I’d be very curious to hear about it), you should agree with my criticism of Ehrman.

    • josh

      Come join the fun Clarissa! We’re allowed to have dissenting opinions over here. All you have to bring is a cogent argument and a willingness to reconsider your positions.

  • clarissa

    By the way, Chris, there really are some Militant Atheists around.

    I have actually been threatened by a couple right here in KCMo.

    • durham669

      Didn’t Jesus say that you should turn the other cheek?

  • Azuma Hazuki


    Okay, sure. Wake me up when groups of them co-opt the government, force the removal of civil rights for non-atheists, and torture and burn believers at the stake and worse. Didn’t your buddy JC say something about taking out the beam in your own eye before removing the splinter from your friend’s?

    Oh, right, almost none of you really pay attention to what Jesus says anyway. Typical.

  • Pingback: Pulling some devastating punches: a review of The Bible Unearthed

  • Pingback: yellow october