Ehrman: I’m not destroying Christianity, I’m only destroying the Bible!

Theology / Biblical Studies

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Bart Ehrman is a slippery type.

Existing near one end of the spectrum on biblical scholarship (where extraordinarily conservative fundamentalism is at one end and unreasonable scepticism for the sake of novelty, notoriety and ratings is at the other – you figure out which end Ehrman is at), Ehrman insists that he’s not out to destroy Christianity. Now, he’s definitely out to deny the resurrection of Jesus, he doesn’t think miracles have ever occurred, he doesn’t even affirm belief in God,  and he thinks that the basic New Testament story about Jesus is false. But he’s not out to destroy Christianity.

How can this be? Like this: He starts out with a view of Scripture that most Christians don’t hold: Inerrancy. Then in the space of a couple of sentence he shifts (without telling the reader) to belief that what the Bible says is true. And then he moves (again without telling the reader) to the view that we should trust the Bible and not God. And since this last view is not a historical Christian view anyway, by attacking all the things I listed earlier, he’s not really attacking Christianity at all.

Here’s what he says. Oh, and because it won’t be obvious to those who are familiar with Ehrman’s work, where he uses the phrase “biblical scholarship,” he’s talking about his own work. Speaking of Christians who think that Christians should believe the teaching of the Bible, he says:

Throughout most of history most Christian thinkers would have been seen this view as theological nonsense. Or blasphemy. The Bible was never to be an object of faith. God through Christ was. Being a Christian meant believing in Christ, not believing in the Bible.

Here are the historical realities. Christianity existed before the Bible came into being: no one decided that our twenty-seven books of the New Testament should be “the” Christian Scripture until three hundred years after the death of the apostles. Since that time Christianity has existed in places where there were no Bibles to be found, where no one could read the Bible, where no one correctly understood the Bible. Yet it has existed. Christianity does not stand or fall with the Bible.

And so, biblical scholarship will not destroy Christianity. It might de-convert people away from a modern form of fundamentalist belief. But that might be a very good thing indeed.

Wow. So teaching people that what the Bible says is false and the Bible is unreliable is fine from a Christian perspective, because we’re supposed to trust God and not the Bible, and the early Christians didn’t have the compiled Bible that we now have?

That really takes the cake. Who, exactly, is saying that we should trust in the Bible instead of God? And while it’s true that the Bible wasn’t compiled for some time, it’s not true that the individual books weren’t written in the first century (even the most zealous of liberal wouldn’t push for later than the mid second century). Even the most liberal of New Testament critics must grant this much in order is to remain within the pale of respectability. It may be sexy and hip to throw out the canard that the Bible represents a much later faith, a faith of the power brokers in church history, that was imposed itself on Christian world, but please Dr Ehrman. To play innocent on grounds like this is frankly making me embarrassed for you.

Glenn Peoples

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{ 4 comments… add one }
  • Joe Johnson May 9, 2009, 3:32 am

    This post is a nice coincidence: I was just listening to a program from the Lutheran program Issues, Etc. on Kings James only people (http://www.issuesetc.org/podcast/223050609H2S2.mp3), which briefly discussed the range of extreme fundamentalism and Bart Ehrman. What really caught me though, was your passing comment: “a view of Scripture that most Christians don’t hold: Inerrancy.”
    I attend a Southern Baptist Church, which, by definition, holds to inerrancy in a big way. I’ve been part of Evangelicalism for a while, which — at least in America — tends toward a strong doctrine of inerrancy. Also, I believe the technical stance of the Roman Catholic Church is inerrancy. Which would add up to the majority of Christians in the US holding to some form of inerrancy.
    I’ve been uncomfortable with that doctrine for a while now, but I’m not sure how to step out from it without being labeled a heretic (especially among the Southern Baptists). Most people in my local circle would hold to the Chicago statement; I would not.
    Of course, I always find this ironic, since almost no one in my circle also bothers to learn Greek or Hebrew, which would seem more consistent with a belief that “plenary verbal inspiration” is a fundamental belief.
    I would love for you — in your spare time — to address this idea. How do people come out from inerrancy without resorting to Ehrman-ism? What is the historical view of scripture’s “inspiration” (or as I like to correct people: “expiration” – the phrase is God-breathed)? How would you answer that ever-present statement, “If there is any error, then how can you trust any of it?” If we can’t trust every word and every detail, what can we trust? Is inerrancy a form of idolatry (i.e. deifying a text)?
    Thanks.

  • Dan May 9, 2009, 3:22 pm

    Oddly, I just came back from a very interesting night on the town with several residents of an eastern european, supposedly catholic, country that I am visiting for professional reasons. On Joe’s point, as a very conservative American sola scriptura Christian, I have no problem with inerrancy in its proper form. Inerrancy does not and cannot mean that there is only one possible interpretation of the text. God used human words, human language, to express various ideas. It’s frighteningly late in the evening / early in the morning for me, but the essence of what I’m getting at is that while all scripture is inspired and therefore absolutely true (because it is the word of God), it is also not true that human beings correctly interpret that scripture. Moreover, the important parts — the sinless life, expiationary sacrifice, and death of Jesus Christ as an atonement for our sins and a gift by God to cover the gap between us and Him — is so clear from the explicit text itself and from an analysis of the text as a whole that it is truly impossible to miss. As one pastor of mine suggested, you can argue about interpretation on things like a glass of wine, but if you’re off base on core doctrine then you have a serious problem.

    My problem this very late evening, is more in line with the gist of the post. I just spent several hours witnessing to an eastern european agnostic who hates all organized religion because it kills people and because the inquisition was evil. I can deal with that, and in eastern europe the flip side of organized communists in large groups still has a powerful argument. But after disposing of that, I finally got to a very brief personal testimony that started with a statement that God is a very personal part of my life only to have one of the people at the table assert very confidently that the bible is a work of fiction that was created entirely in the 1400s to justify serfdom and slavery in the late middle ages. Although the 1400s is the most absurd dating I have heard lately, it seems to be getting more common. I have heard so many arguments along these lines lately — that the bible or any particular set of scriptures is a pack of lies created to justify some vast conspiracy of one sort or another — that I don’t know quite how to deal with it other than to state that the statement is plainly and factually false. Glenn has opined previously about the death of reason, but it seems to be accelerating. The DaVinci Code and Gnostic Gospels seem to be at everyone’s lips these days, followed by assumptions that the bible is “clearly” false. Even references to real, supported proofs of biblical antiquity, much less biblical authenticity, do nothing to shake the faith that there is a conspiracy to shove the bible down their throats.

    Sorry for the lengthy post, but it’s been a frustrating evening and early morning. I’m aware that the point of biblical archeology, textual studies, and theology is not to argue someone into heaven, but what is the point when the world seems devoted to the denigration of reason and fact?

  • Harikrish September 4, 2014, 2:35 am

    I agree with Bart that Christianity existed before the Bible. God /Jesus spoke directly to the apostles and people. The early prophets sowed the seeds of Christianity even before the word became the Bible. But the fact that the Bible as an inspired word of god requires different interpretations suggests it only inspirers some and the rest have to rely on their faith and belief in its inerrancy. If critical and dedicated biblical scholars like Bart Ehrman struggle with the inconstancies and contradiction they find in an inerrant Bible. Then what is the understanding of believers who can only rely on faith because the bible is not only beyond their scope, it is demonstrably beyond their comprehension?
    I also agree with Bart that he is only destroying the Bible because the bible is a theological/historical text. Faith, conviction and beliefs are individual, personal and psychological or not material evidence and much harder to change or destroy.

  • Elijah Eby August 11, 2015, 9:10 am

    I think Ehrman is just saying that there are some Christians who are bible fundamentalists, and others who base their beliefs in natural theology. What he’s saying makes bible fundamentalism impossible, but still permits natural theological basis for Christianity.

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