Why Bart Ehrman is Good for the Church

Posted by Greg Monette on January 15 2014

I grew up in a pretty conservative church. I was taught the planet has only been spinning for 10,000 years and because the Bible was God’s written word there was no way there could be any “discrepancies” (contradictions). Let me state clearly that my church means the world to me. However, it was almost as though the inerrancy (zero errors in Scripture of any kind) of the Bible was as important for the Christian faith as the resurrection of Jesus. I went to Sunday school, youth group, and Bible camp (a world-class camp I may add). Because of my conservative evangelical background I was armed and ready for university. Or so I thought...

In Canada we call the easy courses “Bird Courses.” Prior to university you could say I was not a very motivated student. If there was any way I could skip class it would be done with excellence! In any case, I enrolled in as many “Bird Courses” as possible. As I skimmed over the list of courses that my university offered I noticed some “gifts” from the universe. My eyes grew wider as I saw the following courses offered: Comparative World Religions, Introduction to the Hebrew Scriptures, Introduction to the New Testament, and The Life of Jesus. These were no brainers. I would barely have to crack the textbooks! I could practically teach these courses! My training at Sunday school and youth group made me ready to rock these classes... Or so I thought.

The first class was on a Monday morning in room SB107 – Introduction to the New Testament. Prior to class I went to the bookstore and picked up my textbook. It had a decently nice cover and the title was The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings by someone named Bart D. Ehrman. I had never heard of the guy but I was sure he was a good Christian scholar who wrote a textbook reinforcing everything I already believed.

It took about 30 minutes into the first class before I began to feel a combination of physical pain in my stomach and a strong degree of anger. “What do you mean there are contradictions in the Bible?”... “Did I hear you correctly? Did you say there were between 200-400 thousand variants in the Greek manuscripts of the New Testament?” I wanted to debate my teacher and tell her she must be mistaken and that this skeptical agnostic Ehrman must be off his rocker. Instead I decided to do some “research” to find out for myself why Ehrman was wrong!

I spent a few years reading Ehrman’s books and then those written by evangelical scholars who gave a different perspective than Ehrman’s. What I discovered was that Ehrman wasn’t entirely wrong on all his startling claims. To be sure, he pushed the envelope a lot and still does this to the present day. After all, the guy is a five time New York Times Bestselling author of books related to the New Testament and the Historical Jesus. If you can make New Testament scholarship sexy enough for the masses you deserve an award. So Ehrman wasn’t entirely wrong. What I discovered was that he was probably correct on the number of variants contained within the extant Greek manuscripts of the New Testament (the original language). However, he was much too skeptical about the confidence that most scholars have when they have reconstructed as much as possible the original text of the New Testament. Even skeptical New Testament experts like Marcus Borg (famous for being a member of the Jesus Seminar) don’t doubt that we have pretty close to what was originally written by Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Paul and their colleagues. In the words of Borg:

“The Gospels are historically reliable accounts of what their authors wrote. Centuries of textual criticism–the careful comparison and analysis of ancient manuscripts of the Gospels–have resulted in a text accepted by a consensus of scholarship, both conservative and mainstream. With only a few minor exceptions, we can be confident that the Gospels and the New Testament as a whole reliably report what was originally written.” - Marcus Borg, “The Gospels Are Reliable as Memory and Testimony,” in J. P. Moreland, C. Meister and K. A. Sweis, Debating Christian Theism (New York: OUP, 2013), 432.

Although Ehrman appears to have lost the debate in regards to the confidence scholars have when they have reconstructed the text of the earliest form of the New Testament, he is still correct that there are hundreds of thousands of variants. There may even be more! It's important to note that because we don't have the original New Testament writings (they turned to dust a long time ago), and because we have hundreds of thousands of variants in our more than 5,800 manuscripts, we will never be able to be certain that we have reconstructed the "original" text. However, it doesn’t really matter that much. Over 90% of the variants mean nothing to scholars’ ability to reconstruct a very early form of the New Testament text. In fact, Ehrman has admitted at least this much in his book Did Jesus Exist?:

"The manuscripts of the New Testament do indeed have large numbers of variations in them....But the problem is not of such a scope as to make it impossible to have any idea what the ancient Christian authors wrote....in the vast majority of cases, the wording of these authors is not in dispute." (1)

Ehrman is also correct that the New Testament contains “discrepancies” and not simply “apparent” discrepancies. Evangelicals (and I am one) often make sure they use the word “apparent” before discrepancy because what may seem like a discrepancy now, we may discover isn’t one at all. However, there are definitely more than a few discrepancies in the Gospels that will never be straightened out. For instance, who asked Jesus if the sons of Zebedee (James and John) could sit at his righthand when he entered his kingdom? Was it James and John themselves (Matthew 20:20-28) or their mother (Mark 10:35-45)? The two Gospels do not agree with one another. Was it the centurion himself who asked Jesus to heal his male servant in person as we read in Matthew’s Gospel (8:5-13)? Or did the centurion send some Jewish elders to ask Jesus as we read in Luke’s Gospel (7:1-10)? The discrepancy is clear. Ehrman is correct to point out many of the real discrepancies that exist in the Gospels. However, where Ehrman errs is where he says nothing about the possibility that real events occurred like those described in both Gospels and yet one or both of the Gospel's authors made a mistake in a few of the details, or purposely changed some of the details for reasons they thought acceptable. Yes, it may be an important detail here or there, but it doesn’t necessarily discredit the entirety of each story. Only super conservative Christians should be easy prey for scholars like Ehrman. I used to be one of these people. I’m not anymore. I have learned that there are discrepancies in the Gospels and yet they don’t discredit the overall historical reliability of the stories in question.

I have confidence in the general truthfulness of the stories we read about in the Gospels telling us about Jesus. However, I recognize that they likely get some details wrong, or were changed for good reasons unbeknownst to us today. This doesn’t mean the events being described are fiction. Here is where Ehrman leaves his reader to assume the worst case scenario without informing them of this strong possibility.

So why is Bart Ehrman good for the Church? Because he is helping to shake those of us from a super conservative (should I say ‘fundamentalist’) evangelical background out of some indefensible positions. Christianity rises or falls on whether Jesus was raised from the dead leaving behind an empty tomb, not on the inerrancy of the New Testament. If anyone tells you that the Bible must be 100% reliable in order for Jesus to have been raised from the dead...have a good chuckle. That’s ridiculous. That’s like saying that if a modern day journalist is slightly incorrect in their reporting of something that took place that it mustn't have actually happened. Please. We can do better than this brittle fundamentalism.

Being a Christian doesn’t mean leaving your brain at the door.

Bart Ehrman is showing evangelicals where their weaknesses actually are. We should thank him for this rather than berate him. Yes, he pushes the envelope. He’s a writer of popular trade books. Of course he’s going to do that. However, though he may be wrong on many of his startling claims, he is thinking of all the possible weaknesses that may exist in the ‘fundamentalist‘ armour. And if these really are weaknesses, than they deserve to be exposed and dealt with.

My faith in Jesus has increased because of Bart Ehrman. I understand that many people have lost their faith in Jesus of Nazareth because of Ehrman's writings, but that's not what happened to me. I know what I believe about the Bible and the Historical Jesus because I took the time to engage with Ehrman’s writings. I’m convinced that the Bible is quite reliable (not necessarily perfect) and that Jesus was raised from the dead. Bart helped me on this journey because his textbook was the first one I studied in university and reading it kickstarted my quest for historical knowledge. Personally, I owe Bart Ehrman a lot. Without his introduction to the New Testament textbook I may not be the Christian I am today. The challenges he put forward in his textbook drove me to look into the historical veracity of the Jesus movement in the first place.

The Church will be better off because of you, Bart. I certainly am!

(1) Bart D. Ehrman, Did Jesus Exist?: The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth (New York: HarerOne, 2012), 181.

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