This is an analysis of some of the core themes of “Misquoting Jesus” and “How Jesus Became God” by Bart Ehrman from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Ehrman is an agnostic.
At the outset, its incredibly important to highlight two caveats on Bart Ehrman’s stance that are worth noting at the outset:
- Dr. Ehrman conceeds to the historicity of Jesus Christ
- Dr. Ehrman conceeds that his theories don’t impact core Christian doctrine (quote below)
Here is one of those quotes:
Bart Ehrman was mentored by Bruce Metzger of Princeton University who was the greatest manuscript scholar of the last century. In 2005, Ehrman helped Metzger update and revise the classic work on the topic– Metzger’s The Text of the New Testament.
What do Metzger and Ehrman conclude together in that revised work? Melinda Penner of Stand to Reason writes,
Ehrman and Metzger state in that book that we can have a high degree of confidence that we can reconstruct the original text of the New Testament, the text that is in the Bibles we use, because of the abundance of textual evidence we have to compare. The variations are largely minor and don’t obscure our ability to construct an accurate text. The 4th edition of this work was published in 2005 – the same year Ehrman published Misquoting Jesus, which relies on the same body of information and offers no new or different evidence to state the opposite conclusion.
Here’s what Ehrman says in an interview found in the appendix of Misquoting Jesus (p. 252):
Bruce Metzger is one of the great scholars of modern times, and I dedicated the book to him because he was both my inspiration for going into textual criticism and the person who trained me in the field. I have nothing but respect and admiration for him. And even though we may disagree on important religious questions – he is a firmly committed Christian and I am not – we are in complete agreement on a number of very important historical and textual questions. If he and I were put in a room and asked to hammer out a consensus statement on what we think the original text of the New Testament probably looked like, there would be very few points of disagreement – maybe one or two dozen places out of many thousands. The position I argue for in ‘Misquoting Jesus’ does not actually stand at odds with Prof. Metzger’s position that the essential Christian beliefs are not affected by textual variants in the manuscript tradition of the New Testament.
What can we draw from these two conclusions?
It would seem that both of these admissions puts a rather sizable hole or even shatters the foundations of the theories he is articulating.
Its important to go a bit deeper however, to understand the argument. The Ehrman Project, which maintains a YouTube channel and a Facebook page can be helpful with that.
My Suggestions about Learning More:
To me, the Daniel Wallace interviews along with the quoted directly from Ehrman as well as the Ehrman Project & Ehrman debate are all quite helpful. In addition, most any credible book on the Reliability of the New Testament, particularly post 2007 I believe should address this issue. Specifically the Craig L. Blomberg text linked to below should be helpful in understanding the larger issue of the Historical reliability of the New Testament. Both Wallace and Blomberg are experts in their respective fields. (“Blog for the Lord Jesus Reference Shelf” also has a number of quotes which are worth checking out, for instance this on general reliability of the New Testament)
Free Resources with Critique and Answer Bart Ehrmans Theories about the New Testament
- Professor Daniel Wallace on the Reliability of the New Testament Manuscripts (Interview)
- Professor Daniel Wallace versus Bart Ehrman Debate on the Reliability of the New Testament–“Is the Original New Testament Lost?”
- Wallace’s critque of Ehrman entitled “The Gospel According to Bart”
- Bart Ehrman Project YouTube
- Bart Ehrman Project on Facebook
- How do you explain the high number of variants in the New Testament part I by Dr. Daniel Wallace
- How do you explain the high number of variants in the New Testament part II by Dr. Daniel Wallace
- Always Be Ready’s–Resources Refuting Bart Ehrman
- William Lane Craig has a series of videos in which he refuted the theories of Bart Ehrman which are available on YouTube
- Michael Krueger on Optimism in Textual Criticism
- Michael Krueger Anonymous Gospel Theory Debunked (also a review of Ehrman and Brant Pitre work that critiques Ehrman)
- Everything Michael Kruger has written on his blog Canon Fodder about Bart Ehrman’s books and theories.
- Interview with Michael Bird on Jesus’ divinity (link)
- Peter J Williams Critique of Ehrman’s “Misquoting Jesus” (audio & handout)
- Two arguments from Normal Geisler on reliability (95 to 99%) and the nature of interpreting copyist mistakes (link)
- Mike Licona also has some available resources answering Erhman
It might be worth looking at Wallace’s wrap ups/summmaries of the debate. Wallace concedes the issue of copyist errors, but points out that those errors aren’t ultimately important. The errors are a natural part of God working through humans. When we look at the big picture and the context, the core message of Jesus and the overall New Testament is ultimately preserved. Ehrman, by contrast relies on hyperbole and in some sense contradicts what he says elsewhere about the implications of his research. Ehrman relies on a reductive approach which misses the point on how we can check human caused mistakes along the way. Not to mention, he believes in the Historical Jesus (although I don’t think that claim is brought out in the debate), which again undercuts his thesis significantly.
Here is the other stuff I’ve written which answers or critiques Bart Ehrman’s work.
Books that Critique Bart Ehrman & His Theories Available on Amazon
- The Case for Jesus: The Biblical and Historical Evidence for Christ by Brant Pitre & Robert Barron
- The Reliability of the New Testament: Bart Ehrman and Daniel Wallace in Dialog
- Reinventing Jesus by Kosomoszewski, M. James Sawyer, and Daniel Wallace
- The Historical Reliability of the Gospels by Craig L. Blomberg
- Putting Jesus in his Place: The Case for the Deity of Christ by Kosomoszewski, Darrel L Bock, and Robert M. Bowman Jr.
- How God Became Jesus: The Real Origins of Belief in Jesus’ Divine Nature, Michael Bird, Dr. Craig Evans, and Simon Gathercole
- Revisiting the Corruption of the New Testament by Dr. Daniel Wallace
Dr. Bart Ehrman’s bio:
Bart D. Ehrman is the James A. Gray Distinguished Professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He began his teaching career at Rutgers University, and joined the faculty in the Department of Religious Studies at UNC in 1988, where he has served as both the Director of Graduate Studies and the Chair of the Department. Professor Ehrman completed his M.Div. and Ph.D. degrees at Princeton Seminary
Dr. David Wallace’s Bio:
Dan is Senior Professor of New Testament Studies at Dallas Theological Seminary (has taught there for more than 28 years) and Executive Director of the Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts. He earned a B.A. at Biola University (1975) with a major in biblical studies and minor in Greek; graduated magna cum laude from Dallas Seminary with a ThM degree (1979), with the equivalent of a major in Old Testament studies and a double major in New Testament Studies; graduated summa cum laude from Dallas Seminary with a PhD in New Testament studies (1995). He has done postdoctoral study at Tyndale House, Christ’s College, Clare College, and Westminster College, Cambridge; the Institut für neutestamentliche Textforschung (Institute for New Testament Textual Research), Münster, Germany, Tübingen University; Glasgow University; Bayerische Staatsbibliothek (Bavarian State Library), Munich; as well as various libraries and monasteries in Europe, Australia, America, and Africa.
Dr. Michael Birds Bio:
Dr. Michael Bird (Ph.D University of Queensland) is Lecturer in Theology at Ridley College in Melbourne, Australia and also Visiting Research Professor at Houston Baptist University.
Dr. Peter J Williams Bio:
Peter is the Warden (CEO) of Tyndale House and a member of the Faculty of Divinity in the University of Cambridge. He received his MA, MPhil and PhD, in the study of ancient languages related to the Bible from Cambridge University. After his PhD, he was on staff in the Faculty of Divinity, Cambridge University (1997–1998), and thereafter taught Hebrew and Old Testament there as Affiliated Lecturer in Hebrew and Aramaic and as Research Fellow in Old Testament at Tyndale House, Cambridge (1998–2003). From 2003 to 2007 he was on the faculty of the University of Aberdeen, Scotland, where he became a Senior Lecturer in New Testament and Deputy Head of the School of Divinity, History and Philosophy. In July 2007 he became the youngest Warden in the history of Tyndale House. He also retains his position as an honorary Senior Lecturer in Biblical Studies at the University of Aberdeen.
Williams started the Evangelical Textual Criticism Blog in October, 2005
Mike Licona’s Bio:
Mike has a Ph.D. in New Testament (University of Pretoria). He completed all requirements “with distinction” and the highest marks. He is a frequent speaker on university campuses, churches, Christian groups, retreats, frequently debates, and has appeared as a guest on dozens of radio and television programs. He is a member of the Evangelical Philosophical Society, the Institute for Biblical Research, and the Society of Biblical Literature. Mike is associate professor in theology at Houston Baptist University and the president of Risen Jesus, Inc.
Specifically, the available data clearly indicate that religious belief and practice are associated with:
- Higher levels of marital happiness and stability;
- Stronger parent-child relationships;
- Greater educational aspirations and attainment, especially among the poor;
- Higher levels of good work habits;
- Greater longevity and physical health;
- Higher levels of well-being and happiness;
- Higher recovery rates from addictions to alcohol or drugs;
- Higher levels of self-control, self-esteem, and coping skills;
- Higher rates of charitable donations and volunteering; and
- Higher levels of community cohesion and social support for those in need.
The evidence further demonstrates that religious belief and practice are also associated with:
- Lower divorce rates:
- Lower cohabitation rates;
- Lower rates of out-of-wedlock births;
- Lower levels of teen sexual activity;
- Less abuse of alcohol and drugs;
- Lower rates of suicide, depression, and suicide ideation;
- Lower levels of many infectious diseases;
- Less juvenile crime;
- Less violent crime; and
- Less domestic violence.
No other dimension of life in America-with the exception of stable marriages and families, which in turn are strongly tied to religious practice-does more to promote the well-being and soundness of the nation’s civil society than citizens’ religious observance. As George Washington asserted, the success of the Republic depends on the practice of Religion by its citizens. These findings from 21st century social science support his observation.
Reza is a pretty smart scholar, but I don’t think he gets this right. Specifically Reza says:
“This fact also forbids me from devaluing a person’s interpretation no matter how wrongheaded, unhistorical or irrational it may be”
I think this has a ring of truth to it….but I think if you dig deeper, it creates problems. I would suggest this problem arises for three or more reasons:
For instance, all academia has disagreements, but we don’t throw our hands up in the air to say that the controversy is unresolvable or that all answers are equally true. History, psychology, political science, economics, philosophy, ethics, and even the sciences have these challenges. In fact, we can still find valid interpretations of literature, movies, and art, arguably the most subjective of the academic branches.
This kind of relativistic approach would suggest that all academia is one nebulous sameness in terms of true-ness, credibility, and quality. Excellence in any discipline would be positively dissolved if we applied this writ large in academia.
In the context of the question that means that mainstream Christian scholars like NT Wright and Tim Keller can properly critique cults, and various other misguided interpretations.
Moreover, the concrete example of the Fruits of the Spirit in Galatians provides a general direction for an individual to follow:
22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.
Further, Jesus’ parables have a limited core range of interpretations. Service, forgiveness, love, forgiveness and other virtues are not only the soil out of which they grow and arise, but also the purpose toward which these parables point to.
And, thematic issues as well as the the constellation of verses around an issue serve to check aberrant or misguided interpretations. That is Jesus and the overall themes of the Bible serve as a check on dubious interpretations. Core story elements provide a reflection of our own stories–that help provide a means of looking in the mirror at our options between right and wrong, just and unjust, love and hate, and folly and wisdom.
Our own Constitution has multiple interpretations who sit on a nine member bench, not to mention hundreds of opinions printed in University based Law Journals. Are these all useless exercises because multiple interpretations are possible? There is no shortage of legal opinion on any core legal topic available on Lexis-Nexus or your local university law library. People are more than willing to share what they believe to be the truth on Constitutional issues–and provide rational reasons for those interpretations. However, not all reason are equally compelling, credible, or true.
Our district judges entire jobs are about interpreting complex legal documents and rendering decisions and hopefully render decisions that are both true to the text as well as the interests of justice and the public.
Interpretation and inference is with us in multiple fields of daily live as well–including daily decision making. For instance, if we followed this in our daily lives–marketing campaigns, products, and relationships would be ceased immediately, because all inferences about the interpretation of reality or interpretation of the future would cease in their tracks. However, this would have a corrosive effect on human rationality, truth seeking, survival, and ultimately relationships and innovation.
Finally, I’m confused how different interpretations of the Quran would call all religious texts into question. Those disagreements may be challenging to suss out, but can’t imagine that any true scholar of the Quran would say that the verdict is a 50/50 split on all interpretive questions. That would be like a tie for all the games in football in given season, which is absurd or at least seems so from my perspective.
So lets be clear, no clear answer or the answers are complex and nuanced does not mean all answers are equally valid. Because such a stance means that all academia and indeed life is an exercise in futility because all answers are potentially equally valid. When you look at any broad generalization like this assertion with concrete examples it tends to fall apart when it takes on the details of real life and human existence, which at times seem to present uncertainty–do have available answers.
Moreover, this relativistic or hyper-tolerance approach to the interpretation of the Bible and Quran seems like a dead end. It leaves us with no real response when people attempt to insert values 180 degrees in the opposite direction of the text in slavery, hate, or violence to serve their own political or ideological ends. Respect yes. But relativism no. We certainly don’t have to throw up our hand or act as if all interpretations are equally valid or credible in terms of the core question of the human experience are concerned. Sure there are questions that are hard to resolve, but that’s where thematic interpretation and community interpretation come to play.
And there is a place in the Christian text where God meets us where we are. God knows our heart. And the Holy Spirit can provide guidance on such issues if we have open hearts which are pointed toward God.
And don’t get me wrong, there are mysteries, but we don’t let the mysteries of life confuse what is clear language around Kindness, Goodness, and Love. And these are operationally defined, modeled, and demonstrated in the life of Jesus in a very real and concrete way.
Its certainly possible that I’ve misinterpreted what Mr. Aslan was saying or trying to convey, however I did my best to be honest to his words and intent. And to the extent I may have missed that mark, I am sorry.
If you would like to carry on a correspondence about the ideas contained above, I would be glad to do so over Quora or email.
Finally, I have dealt with similar issues here and unpacked the issue of Biblical interpretation more specifically more directly and concretely:
Imago Dei explained by NT Wright:
“The key is that humans are made in the image of God. That is the equivalent, on the wider canvas, of Israel’s unique position and vocation. And bearing God’s image is not a fact, it is a vocation. It means being called to reflect into the world the creative and receptive love of God. It means being made for relationship, for stewardship, for worship—or, to put it more vividly, for sex, gardening and God. Human beings know in their bones that they are made for each other, made to look after and shape this world, made to worship the one in whose image they are made. But like Israel with her vocation, we humans get it wrong.”
(NT Wright, The Challenge of Jesus: Rediscovering Who Jesus Was and Is, p. 183).
“We worship other gods and start to reflect their likenesses instead. We distort our vocation to stewardship into the will to power, treating God’s world as either a gold mine or an astray. And we distort our calling to beautiful, healing, creative many-sided human relationships into exploitation and abuse. Marx, Nietzsche and Freud described a fallen world in which money, power, and sex have become the norm, displacing relationship, stewardship, and worship.”
(NT Wright, The Challenge of Jesus: Rediscovering Who Jesus Was and Is, p. 183).
These other quotes are mostly various expressions of the purposes of Jesus ministry and Christianity and the church more broadly:
“Following Christ in the power of the Spirit means bring to our world the shape of the gospel: forgiveness, the best news that anyone can ever hear, fro all who yearn for it, and judgement for all who insist on dehumanizing themselves and others by continuing pride, injustice, and greed.”
(NT Wright, The Challenge of Jesus: Rediscovering Who Jesus Was and Is, p 184-185)
“Is it developing in the service of true relationships, true stewardship and even true worship, or is it feeding and encouraging a society in which everybody created their own private, narcissistic, enclosed world?”
(NT Wright, The Challenge of Jesus: Rediscovering Who Jesus Was and Is, p. 185-86).
“When Jesus announced the kingdom, the stories he told functioned like dramatic plays in search of actors. His hearers were invited to audition for parts in the kingdom. They have been eager for Go’d drama to be staged and were waiting to find out what they would have to do when he did so. Now they were to discover. They were to become kingdom-people-themselves. Jesus, following John the Baptist was calling into being what he believed would be the true, renewed people of God.”
(NT Wright, The Challenge of Jesus: Rediscovering Who Jesus Was and Is, p. 43)
“Some he commissioned to share in the work of announcing the kingdom, including the actions, the hearings and table-fellowship, which we shall see later, turned the announcement into symbolic praxis. To take up the cross and follow Jesus meant embracing Jesus’ utterly risky vocation—to be the light of the world in a way the revolutionaries had never dreamed of.”
(NT Wright, The Challenge of Jesus: Rediscovering Who Jesus Was and Is, p. 47)
“When you study the Gospels, looking at the unique and unbeatable message, challenge, warning and summons of Jesus to Israel, you are looking at the unique foundation upon which Jesus’ followers must now construct the kingdom-building, the house of God, the dwelling place for God’s spirit…
In case anyone should think this is all too arbitrary, too chancy, we are promised at every turn that the Spirit of the master architect will dwell in us, nudging and guiding us, correcting mistakes, warning of danger ahead, enabling us to build—if only we will obey—with what will turn our to have been gold, silver and precious stones.”
(NT Wright, The Challenge of Jesus: Rediscovering Who Jesus Was and Is, p. 182).
“Paul speaks of this in Romans 8 and 1 Corinthians 15: the creation itself will receive its exodus, will be set free from its slavery to corruption, death itself will be defeated, and God will be all in all.”
(NT Wright, The Challenge of Jesus: Rediscovering Who Jesus Was and Is, p. 178).
“What Jesus did was unique, climactic, decisive. That, indeed, is the ultimate theological justification for the continuing quest for the historical Jesus.”
(NT Wright, The Challenge of Jesus: Rediscovering Who Jesus Was and Is, p. 181).
“John wants his readers to figure out that Easter day is the first day of God’s new creation. Easter morning was the birthday of God’s new world.”
(NT Wright, The Challenge of Jesus: Rediscovering Who Jesus Was and Is, p. 175)
In addition to the Problem of Pain (the usual book folks would go to) she suggests A Grief Observed, especially for handling the emotional aspects of this issue. Its Amazon here.
She starts by acknowledging the problem of pain in concrete terms (aka examples)
And then around 11:45 starts talking about how Dawkins proposes a meaningless universe.