Review of Bart Ehrman, Jesus, Interrupted

Review of Bart Ehrman, Jesus, Interrupted March 30, 2009

In his latest book, Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (And Why We Don’t Know About Them), Bart Ehrman seeks to introduce a wider audience to important aspects of the New Testament. The contradictions, tensions and diversity of viewpoints in the Bible which Ehrman highlights, and the historical-critical approach he outlines, are common knowledge to Biblical scholars, as well as to anyone who had studied in a mainline seminary in the past half century or so. Yet more often than not, such information seems to fail to filter through to the wider populace. The information Ehrman presents is not at odds with Christian faith, although it is at odds with the claims that some Christians make about the Bible. Yet ironically, those Christians who affirm the Bible’s importance seem to put no greater effort into familiarizing themselves with the details of the Bible’s contents, much less scholarship that might aid in understanding it.

Ehrman recounts in the book how he entered seminary as a conservative Christian, ready to resist the attacks liberal scholars would wage against the Bible. Instead, he discovered that this scholarly way of viewing the Bible in fact made better sense and did more justice to what one actually finds in the Bible (p.6). And so Ehrman, like many other students of the Bible from conservative backgrounds (including myself), found his view of the Bible being challenged by the evidence itself (p.xi).

Because of his experience of conservative Evangelicalism, Ehrman is able to address not only the New Testament and other ancient writings from the same period, but also the strategies some Christians have developed for avoiding the natural implications of the Biblical evidence – for instance, “harmonizing”, which usually involves creating one’s own Gospel out of the four found in the New Testament, combining them so that one ends up with a version that isn’t what any of the canonical Gospels say (pp.7, 69-70).

Through the chapters of his book, Ehrman shows how the view of Jesus evolved with time in early Christianity (pp.73-82, 245-247, 260), showing in the process what is wrong with C. S. Lewis’ famous “trilemma” that Jesus must be either “liar, lunatic or Lord”: it assumes that Jesus made the claim to be divine attributed to him in the Gospel of John and only there among the canonical Gospels. A historian cannot have this confidence, and thus must add a fourth option, namely that this claim attributed to Jesus is a “legend” (pp.141-142). The nature of historical study, and its inability to affirm miracles as probable since they are by definition improbable, is also explained (pp.175-177).

Ehrman includes material that summarizes (and thus overlaps somewhat) with earlier books such as Lost Christianities and Misquoting Jesus. But he also responds to criticisms that have been offered in the meantime, in particular of the latter (see pp.186-189). At times, one is reminded of James Dunn’s classic study, Unity and Diversity in the New Testament.

I highly recommend Ehrman’s book as a readable overview presenting information about the Bible and early Christianity that ought by now to be common knowledge. The reason it is not probably is due largely to the belief that such critical study of the Bible it antithetical to the Christian faith, and that the appropriate Christian stance is to affirm the Bible’s inerrancy rather than allow one’s view of the Bible and other matters to be shaped by the Bible’s actual contents. And thus I find a statement Ehrman makes towards the end of his book to be among his most important: “everyone already picks and chooses what they want to accept in the Bible. The most egregious instances of this can be found among people who claim not to be picking and choosing” (p.281).

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