Sunday, March 05, 2006

Why are Bible debunkers not smarter?

The Washington Post has an article today, "The Book of Bart," about the author of Misquoting Jesus, which no doubt will have its run among dilettantish folks who think they've really found something that "gets the goods" on all the Bible nonsense.

Well, I've read the Post article (click the headline above to read for yourself), and -- while allowing for the possibility the reporter gets the story wrong, and pending my own opportunity to peruse the man's book myself -- the guy embarrasses himself with some of his assertions.

Here's the set-up: Bart Ehrman used to be a "seminarian," he was graduated from the Moody Bible Institute, and is a "New Testament expert." Only after studying Scripture, he lost his faith.

Ehrman's latest book, "Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why," has become one of the unlikeliest bestsellers of the year. A slender book of textual criticism, currently at No. 16 on the New York Times bestseller list, it casts doubt on any number of New Testament episodes that most Christians take as, well, gospel.

From the Post:

Example: A crowd readies itself to stone an adulterous woman to death. Jesus leans down, doodles in the dust. Says, let the one without sin cast the first stone. The crowd melts away. It's one of the most famous stories in the Bible.

And it's most likely fiction, says Ehrman, seconding other scholars who say scribes added the episode to the biblical canon centuries after the life of Christ.

OK, well, ahem. In fairness, I have to see what his argument actually is, in his own words. But let's think about this: no matter what anyone says, no one is in a position to say, "yup, that's fiction--didn't happen." Just how does someone prove such a claim?

The most one can assert is that the text shows evidence of some editing -- that this story was "stitched in" at this point. One could argue it was stitched in further along. But that doesn't say, one way or the other, whether the episode happened or not.

Take note: this field is crowded with smart people who say dumb things. They make assertions (such as this) far stronger than any evidence they can marshall in support of their statements. In a word, hubris.

But it gets better.

Again, from the Post:

Ehrman ruthlessly pounces on the anomalies -- in this Gospel [of John], Jesus isn't born in Bethlehem, he doesn't tell any parables, he never casts out a demon, there's no last supper. "None of that is found in John!" The crucifixion stories are different -- in Mark, Jesus is terrified on the cross; in John, he's perfectly composed. Key dates are different. The resurrection stories are different. Ehrman reels them off, rapid-fire, shell bursts against the bulwark of tradition.

So Professor Ehrman has discovered how different the first three Gospels, and the fourth, are from each other? Wow--folks who never attended college figure that out on their own! So where it is written that John was supposed to tell his story the same way? In fact, John simply omits (as does Mark) any discussion of Jesus' birth altogether. It begins the story later. So what? So what it omits the parables.

There are many possible reasons for this, one of which seems rather obvious: if the author of John had access to the other Gospels, then why plow the same ground? Even if he didn't, why is he bound to use the same outline of his story?

The only really important question here is whether the varying portraits are contradictory, or merely complementary.

And a truly dispassionate scholar would, in addition to the variations (that are problematic, no denying) in the crucifixion and resurrection accounts, note that for these few, there is substantial agreement: and the curiosity of this is that, if they all made up these stories, divergence is not notable, but rather, convergence is. All four Gospels tell an amazing story, and these quibbles, even if they impinged on inspiration, do not discredit their fundamental witness that something happened.


"In Matthew, Mark and Luke, you find no trace of Jesus being divine,"* he says, his voice urgent. "In John, you do." He points out that in the other three books, it takes the disciples nearly half of Christ's ministry to learn who he is. John says no, no, everyone knew it from the beginning. "You shouldn't think something just because you believe it. You need reasons. That applies to religion. That applies to politics . . . just because your parents believe something isn't good enough."

Well, that first claim is utter crap, I'm sorry. And any scholar of Scripture knows better. "No trace"? There are abundant "traces" -- indeed, all I need do is offer a single "trace" and his claim is exploded. In another post -- if any readers express interest in this subject -- I'll be happy to offer some, just to show the ludicrousness of this assertion.

All four Gospels contain extensive material pointing to the divinity of Jesus, in such a way that there's no doubt, I think, the writers were consciously dealing with this question. Can you also point to other material that clouds the question? Certainly. Can you explain the evidence of Jesus' divinity in such a way as to reach a negative answer? Yes, although with difficulty. But to say there's "no trace"? That's nonsense, I'm sorry.

If you want to discuss this more, leave a comment; I'm happy to say more, but this will do for now . . .

* Update: for a detailed exegesis of Mark that demolishes this ridiculous assertion, see this post.


Anonymous said...

You go Father! Unfortunately there are more than a few priests who buy lock, stock and barrel in to the Jesus Seminar nonsense. One thing that has always troubled me in that regard is, if one is going to have so little faith, why bother becoming a priest? I enjoy your blog. Frank

Jackie said...

OK - so I read the article. In addition to finding the 'logic' and 'scholarship' shoddy (and very, very boringly similar to the other 'debunkers'), I also found a intersting comment from Darrell Bock (Dallas Theological Seminary)-that they may be 'guilty of asking the Bible to do too much.' I think this is crux of Bart's lose of faith - because, in fact, his faith was based on a book - the word of God and not the WORD. And, in fact, that is one of the pillars of the Reformation so it is logical. And when you find conflicting texts - that you should be able to solve on your own and you can't - what are you left with. There is no place for that kind of questioning, since it shows a lack of faith, and there is no place for understanding suffering other than 'Why would a good loving God allow this?'. So he has filled the restless place in his heart with academic success, student adoration, a 2nd marriage and the 'finer things of life' but it's not REALLY filled - so he spends his time debunking the Who who continues to call him. Let's pray he responds.

Father Martin Fox said...


Yes, I think the other theme of his story, as the Post tells it, is way some Evangelicalisms (there are variants) set their folks up for such a fall.

A too-shallow notion of what it means to say "the Bible is true" or "the Bible is inspired" or even, "the Bible is inerrant" only serves to set someone up for a crisis of faith such as this man had.

By the way, I am not meaning to pick on the man, and I certainly feel compassion for him, I pray he finds his faith; I am confident God is at work in his life; the article bears many signs of that.

But insofar as the man has chosen to go to war against the Christian Faith, to the extent to writing a book, and doing so under the claim of expertise -- then he's stepping into the boxing ring, as it were; and he is inviting the rhetorical blows. Insofar as he is searching for what is reasonable and intellectually sound, then he needs people to show the unsoundness, and unreasonability of what he's currently advocating.

Jackie said...

Fr Fox,

Aww - the problems with communicating only via writing and not having sat down to chat - I never thought that you were picking and I ABSOLUTELY AGREE that if you step into the ring (particularly of something so important) - and throw the punches - you ought not be surprised to find a return. And, I don't think your jabs were nasty or uncharitable but logical and truthful.

God Bless - J

Father Martin Fox said...


I did not take any of your comments as a criticism; merely that your comments prompted me to think that someone else might wonder if I was hitting the man too hard, and I offered further thoughts. . .

Rich Leonardi said...

Let's step outside the Gospels for a moment and visit the letters of St. Paul, the earliest-written documents of the New Testament. In Philippians 2:7-11, he writes:

"Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross. Because of this, God greatly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father."

If memory serves, Philippians was written before 60 A.D., and most scholars believe Paul is citing a liturgical hymm confessing Christ's divinity. So the Gospels, written largely after Paul's letters, reflect what Paul and the Church already recognized: Christ's divinity.

Anonymous said...

If he wants to see the same face of God in all four of the Gospels then perhaps the face he's expecting to see is his own. And it sounds like he's having a bit of a tantrum when he didn't find it there.

Curtis in Seattle

winston7000 said...

To paraphrase Our Lord, "Crossan and Ehrman will pass away, but my words will not pass away."

Bookstores are filled with scoffers, but so too was crowd surrounding the cross of Christ.