Bart Ehrman is one of the most well-known and influential critics of traditional Christianity and the inspired Bible (“anti-theists”) writing today. Formerly, in his own words, he was “a fundamentalist for maybe 6 years; a conservative evangelical but not extreme right wing for maybe 5 years more; and a fairly mainstream liberal Christian for about 25.” The primary reason he gives for having lost his faith is the problem of evil (a very serious topic I have dealt with many times). He stated on 3-18-22 in a comment on his blog: “I could no longer explain how there could be a God active in this world given all the pain and misery in it.” I don’t question his sincerity, good intentions, intellectual honesty, or his past status as a Christian; only various opinions which Christians must (in consistency) regard as erroneous.
Dr. Ehrman “received his PhD and MDiv from Princeton Theological Seminary, where he studied textual criticism of the Bible, development of the New Testament canon and New Testament apocrypha under Bruce Metzger.” He has written 30 books, which have sold over two million copies and have been translated into 27 languages.
Ehrman explains that the purpose of his blog is “to disseminate scholarly knowledge of the New Testament and the earliest periods of the Christian church to a non-scholarly audience, . . . Every post is rooted in scholarship – not just my own but that of thousands of scholars who have worked for centuries on understanding the historical Jesus, the New Testament, and the origins of Christianity.” Well, the conclusions of scholars are only as good as the solidity and truthfulness of the premises by which they are operating.
This is one of a series of reply-papers, in which I will address many of his materials from the perspective of archaeology, history, and exegesis.
I am responding to his article, “Jesus and Paul: Are They on the Same Page?” (2-17-22). His words will be in blue.
I spent several posts explicating Paul’s understanding of his gospel, that by Christ’s death and resurrection a person is put into a restored relationship with God. He had several ways of explaining how it worked (the “judicial” model; the “participationist” model; and the other models I described). But in all of these ways, it was Jesus’ death and resurrection that mattered. It was not keeping the Jewish law. It was not knowing or following Jesus’ teaching. It was not Jesus’ miracles. It was not … anything else. It was Jesus’ death and resurrection. . . .
Paul says something completely different. Paul does not tell the person to follow the Law of God. He tells him to “believe in the death and resurrection of Jesus and be baptized.”
Ehrman is here arguing as if he were a Protestant who believes in “faith alone”: a non-biblical and extra biblical tradition of men, and not the biblical teaching. He makes Paul out to be a “faith alone” zealot: as if he were no longer Jewish at all, and Jesus to be so “Jewish” in outlook that He scarcely offers any new developments in soteriology. Neither thing is true, of course, and they are quite consistent with each other: Jesus also teaches about faith (in Him) and Paul also teaches about observant faith and good works.
So the false dichotomy Ehrman tries to create in this regard is exactly that: false. It’s not “either/or” within Paul’s or Jesus’ teaching on salvation, and it’s not a dichotomy between them. Both teach about faith as a prerequisite of salvation and both teach about the necessity of good works for salvation. God’s grace is behind all of it.
First, here are no less than eighteen of Paul’s statements about salvation, which never mention Christ’s death and resurrection (which is indeed very important in his view and that of Jesus), and stress good works in the attainment of final salvation:
Romans 1:5 (RSV) through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith . . .
Romans 1:17 . . . as it is written, “He who through faith is righteous shall live.”
Romans 2:6-10, 13 For he will render to every man according to his works:  to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life;  but for those who are factious and do not obey the truth, but obey wickedness, there will be wrath and fury.  There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek,  but glory and honor and peace for every one who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek. . . .  For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified.
Romans 3:31 Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law.
Romans 6:17, 19 . . . you . . . have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, . . .  . . . For just as you once yielded your members to impurity and to greater and greater iniquity, so now yield your members to righteousness for sanctification.
Romans 10:16 But they have not all obeyed the gospel; . . .
Romans 13:13-14 let us conduct ourselves becomingly as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy.  But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.
Romans 16:26 . . . according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith
1 Corinthians 9:24 Do you not know that in a race all the runners compete, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it.
1 Corinthians 15:10 But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God which is with me.
2 Corinthians 5:10 For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive good or evil, according to what he has done in the body.
Galatians 5:6-7 For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is of any avail, but faith working through love. You were running well; who hindered you from obeying the truth?
Philippians 2:12-13 Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.
Colossians 3:23-25 Whatever your task, work heartily, as serving the Lord and not men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward; you are serving the Lord Christ. For the wrongdoer will be paid back for the wrong he has done, and there is no partiality.
2 Thessalonians 1:8 inflicting vengeance upon those who do not know God and upon those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus.
1 Timothy 6:18-19 They are to do good, to be rich in good deeds, liberal and generous, thus laying up for themselves a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life which is life indeed.
2 Timothy 2:15, 21-22 Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth. . . . If any one purifies himself from what is ignoble, then he will be a vessel for noble use, consecrated and useful to the master of the house, ready for any good work. So shun youthful passions and aim at righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with those who call upon the Lord from a pure heart.
Titus 1:16 They profess to know God, but they deny him by their deeds; they are detestable, disobedient, unfit for any good deed. (cf. 3:8, 14)
I then summarized in my previous post, the teaching of Jesus himself, about the coming Son of Man and the need to prepare by keeping the Law of God, as revealed in the Torah, as summarized in the commandments to love God above all else and to love one’s neighbor as oneself.
Do these represent the same religion? . . .
I am asking if the gospel that Paul preached is essentially the same or different from the message of Jesus. A very good case can be made, of course, that they are fundamentally different. . . .
[A]t the end of the day, it sure seems to me that they had different understandings of “salvation.” Jesus had an urgent message to deliver about the coming kingdom of God to be brought by the Son of Man for those who were obedient to God; and Paul had an urgent message to deliver about the return of Jesus for the “saved” – those who believed in Christ’s death and resurrection.
In a comment for this post (2–20-22), Ehrman claims that Jesus would have found Paul’s letters “completely bizarre.”
Ehrman is presenting only one side of Paul’s soteriological views and one side of Jesus’ views. That hardly gives us the whole picture. He has failed in not presenting the legal notion of “the whole truth.” Jesus surely does teach the importance of works. I myself have highlighted this, in my efforts to refute the false doctrine of salvation by faith alone. See:
Jesus vs. “Faith Alone” (Rich Young Ruler) [10-12-15]
But Jesus did not refrain from also highlighting (just as Paul did) that salvation came from belief in Him, and His death and resurrection on behalf of all mankind:
Matthew 10:22 and you will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But he who endures to the end will be saved.
Matthew 16:25 For whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.
Mark 10:29-30 Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel,  who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life. (cf. Mt 19:29; Lk 18:30)
Luke 19:10 For the Son of man came to seek and to save the lost.
Luke 24:25-27 And he said to them, “O foolish men, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken!  Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?”  And beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself.
John 3:36 He who believes in the Son has eternal life; he who does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God rests upon him.
John 5:24 Truly, truly, I say to you, he who hears my word and believes him who sent me, has eternal life; he does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life.
John 6:27-29 “Do not labor for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to eternal life, which the Son of man will give to you; for on him has God the Father set his seal. Then said they to him, ‘What must we do, to be doing the works of God?’ Jesus answered them, ‘This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.’ ”
John 6:35-36, 40, 47 Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; he who comes to me shall not hunger, and he who believes in me shall never thirst.  But I said to you that you have seen me and yet do not believe. . . .  For this is the will of my Father, that every one who sees the Son and believes in him should have eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day.”  Truly, truly, I say to you, he who believes has eternal life.
John 7:38 He who believes in me, as the scripture has said, `Out of his heart shall flow rivers of living water.'”
John 8:24 I told you that you would die in your sins, for you will die in your sins unless you believe that I am he.
John 11:25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live,
John 12:32 and I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself.
John 12:46-47 I have come as light into the world, that whoever believes in me may not remain in darkness.  If any one hears my sayings and does not keep them, I do not judge him; for I did not come to judge the world but to save the world.
John 14:6 Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me.
So yeah, the two sets of teachings do indeed represent “the same religion.” There is no clash or contradiction whatsoever.
It is important to notice what Jesus’ response is to how to have eternal life. You have to keep the laws God laid out in the Torah. And if you want to have treasures in heaven, you are to do even more than that – you are to give love totally to your (poor) neighbor. That’s how one earns salvation.
It’s not true that it is a universal requirement (according to Jesus) for everyone to give all their money to the poor in order to be saved. That’s what was required of the rich young ruler, because he had made riches his idol. But nowhere is this made a prerequisite for anyone or everyone else. Ehrman simply reads the universality into a very particular situation. The point that Jesus made to His disciples after this encounter, was not that all had to give up everything, but that, rather, “How hard it will be for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God!” and “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” (Mk 10:23, 25).
Ehrman responded in his combox (3-23-22):
I’m not talking about Jesus as presented in the Gospel of John, but the historical Jesus — who never speaks about believing in his death and resurrection for salvation. And Paul certainly does not think that keeping the law will contribute to earning salvation — otherwise, as he says, “Christ died in vain.”
This is what Bible skeptics constantly do, and it is completely arbitrary and irrational. If they don’t personally care for a passage or group of related passages (if it doesn’t fit into their preconceived notions), they simply claim that they were made up and have no relation to actual history. He believes what he wants to believe (the will rather than the mind at that point). There is no way to rationally argue with this sort of utterly subjective fairy tale method of “exegesis.” Nothing objective exists in such a methodology. The only way we can object to it is to expose the methodology itself, as I just did.
If Ehrman agrees with a given biblical passage, he certainly has no objection to highlighting it as evidence for his overall disbelieving worldview. But if he doesn’t agree with it, he plays some variation of the game that we see above: it wasn’t really in the Bible or was modified by the nefarious orthodox Christians for their own ends. It’s conspiratorialism and mythmaking. This “enables” him or “justifies” him in thinking that he can dismiss with the wave of a hand all of the scriptural data that I brought to bear.
I continue to maintain that we have to analyze the Bible on its own terms. It is what it is (agree or disagree). The only way to determine if a biblical book is historically trustworthy (from a secular scientific perspective) is to examine it using secular and scientific criteria (archaeology and historiography). I have done this with the book of John. See: Gospel of John & Archaeology & History (17 Extrabiblical Verifications of the Gospel of John’s Historical Accuracy). Because of this demonstrated, tested accuracy, we can trust John to accurately report Jesus’ words (agree or disagree with those words).
It remains to be seen if Ehrman will seriously interact with my critiques, with an entire article, not just soundbites in combox replies. I’ve done six so far. Time will tell. He does seem like a nice and courteous man, as far as that goes. And that’s crucial these days, in seeking to engage in true, constructive dialogue.
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Photo credit: Christ in Gethsemane (1886), by Heinrich Hofmann (1824-1911) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]
Summary: Agnostic & anti-theist Bart Ehrman attempts to draw a false dichotomy: Jesus vs. Paul on Salvation. He does so by only presenting one side of the teachings of each.