Bart Ehrman reads the Pope’s new book

Last week, I explained why the Pope saying the date of Jesus’ birth is not news. Now, Bart Ehrman reads the book and says it “provides an intelligent, very pious, and not very critical pastoral and soothing interpretation of the accounts of Jesus’ birth in Matthew and Luke.” The details are pretty much what I expected:

Of course he would do that.  What else would he do?  He’s not going to focus on the discrepancies between the accounts, the historical implausibilities, the violations of all sense (not just virgin births, of course, as that’s a doctrinal certainty; but also stars stopping over houses and the like).   For Pope Benedict (or theologian Ratzinger) these stories are *Scripture* and are not only theologically at the heart of the Christian gospel but are also rooted in real, actual history.  They really happened.  As described.  In detail.  Completely and fully.   He maintains in the book that critical scholars are too critical and ought to realize that these things really took place as the Gospel writers said.  If you’d been there, you would have been able to capture it all on your camcorder.

The Pope, to be fair, has read critical scholarship (some, at least; he’s not a biblical scholar by any stretch of the imagination), does know what it says, and does point out that critical scholars observe discrepancies in the accounts and historical improbabilities.   But he deals with these either by denying that they actually exist, by saying that there are surely explanations for them even though (he admits this) no one has figured out what those explanations are, and by asserting that views of critical scholars are untenable without saying why (he’s the Pope!  Why should he have to have an argument or cite evidence?)  (On that note, I should point out that there are no blurbs on the back cover – who could possibly pass approbation on the work of the Pope!)

  • Christensen

    And we all know Ehrman is unbiased and has no agenda.

    • Ray

      Well. Yes. As illustrated by his last book, Ehrman tends to overestimate the historical accuracy of the Gospels, by

      1) dating them too early (as early as 70 AD), despite the fact that no independently datable document prior to I Clement (ca. 96 AD) seems to quote them, and no document prior to the pseudographical Epistle of Barnabas (ca 130s AD) quotes them exactly or even implies that it is quoting a written source.

      2) acting as though common guesses as to what’s in hypothetical documents like Q can be treated as though they came from an extant ancient source.

      Once could perhaps speculate that this bias arises not because he has any direct interest in supporting Christian historical claims, but rather because he has a vested interest in the reputation of NT scholarship as a discipline — and NT scholars being by and large a religious bunch tend towards the conservative side. Perhaps he also has somewhat of a vested interest in there being something interesting to say about the New Testament — and there is less to say if we conclude that there is little to no reliable information about the Historical Jesus to be had.

      Nonetheless, I don’t see how this bias casts doubts upon Ehrman’s claim that the Pope goes further than is reasonable in attributing historical reliability to the Gospels.

      • Kansas Troll Team Member

        And what makes your argument so much better than Ehrman’s?

        • Ray

          What makes it worse? I’ve argued the gospels are probably later than Ehrman thinks (at least there seem to be no strong reasons to date them as early as he does) and that claims about lost sources are speculative at best. Which part do you disagree with and why? Do you have any specific arguments from Ehrman against these positions that you find convincing?

  • Kacy

    Did Ehrman take down the article? I’m getting a “Page not found” when I click on your link.

  • Randy

    The pope is showing us how biblical scholarship should be done. What he is saying between the lines is that the way guys like Ehrman do it is all wrong. That the scriptures should be trusted unless there is good reason not to. Discrepancies on details means we distrust the details. It does not mean we throw the whole thing out.

    Pope Benedict believes the scriptures are divinely inspired. His approach makes sense in that light. I don’t know what Ehrman believes about scripture. He seems to think it is worth studying and writing about but he does not trust it at all. To me it is Ehrman that is inconsistent. Either say the bible is important or don’t bother with it.

    • C.J. O’Brien

      So you think only adherents of a particular faith should “bother with” the texts and claims central to it. I’m sure that would make things nice and cozy for believers, but the truth is there are serious historical, literary, and anthropological matters to be studied and discussed that have nothing at all to do with “trust” or believing one word of what are after all just ancient fictions in the service of religious traditions.

      • Randy

        If Ehrman was an atheist I would be fine with that. I would find it odd that he would spend that much time on scripture but at least his perspective would make sense. But liberal Christianity does not make sense. The bible is the word of God but it is also full of lies. Believe the bible when it says ” love your enemies” but ignore it when it says Jesus healed a man born blind.

        • C.J. O’Brien

          I believe Ehrman identifies as agnostic. And I don’t think you’ll find many here who are going to defend any flavor of Christianity; we’re atheists, you know. No Christian doctrine makes sense. But there’s a whole Progressive Christian channel, right here on Patheos. Go tell them about it.

    • Dorfl

      Anyone with a basic grasp of history knows that the Bible is important. Thinking it is accurate and trustworthy, is a different matter entirely.

    • Laurence

      Or how about the crazy idea that the Bible (or any other religious text) should be treated like any other historical document.

      • Randy

        That is hard to do. The biggest question is how supernatural events should effect your judgement about the historical accuracy. So if the resurrection of Jesus was a natural event, that is there was an accepted scientific explanation for it, then there would be no reason to doubt it. There is nothing inherently unbelievable about the documents from a purely historical perspective. The question is how much should a story about a virgin birth, various miracles and then someone rises from the dead be treated with suspicion. Clearly there should be some tendency to prefer that the account is fictional. Can any amount of evidence to the contrary make up for that? If so, how much? Does the bible meet that threshold?

        • Ray

          Ordinarily, I’d agree with you, but there are plenty of reasons aside from the supernatural elements to doubt the historical accuracy of the Gospels.

          1) They’re from an obviously biased source.
          2) They’re not written by someone with an independent record of making historically accurate claims.
          3) They contain obvious fiction tropes e.g. (how the women find out where Jesus was buried.) and (Natch. No real life king is actually that Genre-Blind, especially not the king of a people whose most famous prophet was allegedly the beneficiary of the same exact trope.)
          4)Eyewitnesses don’t copy large blocks of text verbatim from other authors when reporting events they witnessed. Reputable historians don’t do it without citation.
          5)The Gospels are inordinately talky, and even the more reliable ancient sources are notorious for inventing dialogue.
          6) Then of course there are the well known contradictions including Jesus’s genealogy, historical context that gives incompatible dates for his birth etc.

          • MNb

            @Ray: Do you think scholars of Ancient History haven’t addressed these problems yet? Do you think these problems are unique for the Gospels? Concerning point 4: do you think the authors of the Gospels wrote them to please you 21st Century Man?
            ALL antique accounts are problematic when it comes to historical accuracy. Every single of them. About none of the problems you mention is unique for the Gospels.

          • Ray

            Of course these problems are not unique to the Gospels. But what other historical sources that have all six of these problems are taken to be accurate by serious historians? The closest example I can come up with is Homer, which arguably shares problems 1,3,4, and 6 from my list. But then how much of Homer do historians really take seriously? Yes, they can accept that Homer accurately preserves the memory of certain cities that had been abandoned for several centuries. But they don’t think it’s enough to establish Achilles’s semi-divine status or even his existence. Now I do think there was a historical Jesus, but that’s based on the letters of Paul and the James, brother of Jesus Passage in Josephus, not because of the Gospels, which I regard as weak evidence of pretty much anything about the time period they purport to describe.

            As far as your opening question “Do you think scholars of Ancient History haven’t addressed these problems yet?”goes: We have in the original post an example of just such a scholar (actually a NT scholar to be precise.) Bart Ehrman has addressed these problems by concluding the Gospels just plain aren’t that accurate. Now, as I said elsewhere, I don’t think he goes quite far enough in that conclusion, but for our purposes, this is a minor quibble.

  • MNb

    “no one has figured out what those explanations are”
    Oh yes. And these explanations are easy: all based on human errancy. Sits not well with Ratzi, I guess.
    O’Brien is right. As soon as we assume that the Bible is of human origin there is a lot of info to be found.

  • MNb

    @Ray: about none of the six points you make are unique for the Gospels. That’s why scholars of Ancient History have a full time job. You don’t think they haven’t addressed these problems, do you? Take for instance your point 4. The authors of the Gospels didn’t write with a 21st Century reader in mind.

    • Ray

      I’m confused. What are you claiming? I don’t think my position on the reliability of the Gospels is even outside the mainstream for NT scholars.

      As far as point 4 goes, even in the ancient context, documents from different authors with mutually contradictory views, sharing large swathes of text verbatim is not normal. You find historians quoting other historical texts approvingly, and all manner of documents that quote a text in order to refute it, but the Gospels plainly do neither. To my knowledge it’s the sort of thing you only see in epic poetry and religious texts — neither of which are typically historically reliable.

      Now, this doesn’t absolutely preclude there being some good historical information in there, but it certainly doesn’t help.

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