Historical Criticism of the Bible

I finished reading Bart Ehrman’s new book “Jesus Interrupted” a few days ago and was surprised by quite a bit of what he had to say.  For those who don’t know Mr. Ehrman, he is the James A. Gray Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He reads the ancient languages of the Bible, and he is published widely and respected as a scholar.

He wrote a best seller in 2005 “Misquoting Jesus,” that so upset the Evangelical community that it spawned 3 books in rebuttal. He was raised as an Episcopalian and had a “born again” epiphany as a sophomore in high school and accepted Jesus as his savior.  Wanting to study scripture full time he entered the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, where all students and professors had to sign a document attesting that they believed the Bible to be the inerrant word of God, and was a divinely inspired document from beginning to end.

It wasn’t long before he ran into problems with what he was learning. One of his first classes taught that none of the original texts of the New Testament exist. All we have left are copies of copies that are written as much as a few centuries after the originals. He also learned they are filled with errors and intentional changes (thousands) made over centuries by scribes. This made Ehrman start a serious study of the New Testament. He finished his undergraduate studies at Wheaton College in Illinois where he studied ancient Greek language. He was on a quest to understand how we could know the word of God if all we had were error riddled copies.

He then enrolled in the Princeton Theological Seminary (A Presbyterian school) in the late 70’s and immersed himself in the study of the New Testament texts…being still a believer in the inerrancy of the Bible.  This was soon to change.

Many students enrolling in mainline Protestant seminaries are surprised by the challenge they face to their cherished warm and fuzzy views of the Bible. The seminaries now teach the “historical-critical” method of bible study, completely different than the “devotional” method taught in church.

For three hundred years German and English scholars have pored over the Bible and critiqued the writings for what the authors meant in the historical context, who the actual authors were, what circumstances were they writing in, what issues were they trying to address, what were their sources, when were the sources written, and many other questions.  These were the things taught in Mr. Ehrman’s school, the Princeton Theological Seminary.  They make students knowledgeable about the Bible, not just what is in the Bible.

This method used asks the hard questions about scripture; is it possible that the books of the Bible have internal contradictions, are there irreconcilable differences, and what if we don’t have the original words…over the centuries the Hebrew Old Testament and the Greek New Testament was copied by hand by scribes and some of the words were changed by well meaning but careless copyists, or those with a agenda of supporting a particular viewpoint.

Mr. Ehrman learned in his classes taught in the historical-critical method that the Bible is filled with discrepancies, many of them irreconcilable, Moses did not write the Pentateuch, and Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John did not write the Gospels, the Exodus certainly did not happen as written in the Bible, the promised land is based on legend, maybe Moses never existed, and we probably don’t know what Jesus actually taught.

The historical narratives of the Old Testament are filled with mythical fabrications and in the New Testament we find it contains historically unreliable information about the life and teaching of Paul.  Other than the Gospels already mentioned, many of the other books of the New Testament are pseudonymous…that is written by someone other than the Apostles, claiming to be the apostles

Mark says that Jesus was crucified the day after the Passover meal was eaten (Mark 14:12, 15:25) and John says he died the day before it was eaten (John 19:14)

Ehrman’s inerrancy belief was broken many times and he eventually came to believe that the Bible was a “human book from beginning to end.” That it was written by different authors, at different times, and for different needs.

Mr. Ehrman points out; none of what he is saying in his books is the least bit academically controversial. Even scholars who are devout Christians agree, and have for decades. The field of biblical historical-critical textual studies is 300 years old.  Ehrman’s book simply presents the accepted findings of the field for the lay audience.

In his book, “Jesus Interrupted,” Ehrman goes beyond textual problems to look at deeper doctrinal inconsistencies and contradictions. Ehrman points out that Mark and Luke had much different attitudes toward Jesus’ death: Mark saw him as in doubt and despair on the way to the cross, while Luke saw him as calm. Mark and Paul saw Jesus’ death as offering atonement for sin, while Luke did not. Matthew believed that Jesus’ followers had to keep the Jewish law to enter the kingdom of Heaven, a view categorically rejected by Paul. The conventionally recited response to this is to try to “harmonize” the Bible by smashing all four Gospels together. But as Ehrman argues, this only creates a bogus “fifth Gospel” that doesn’t exist.

He points out that many of the books in the New Testament were not even written by their purported authors: only eight of its 27 books are almost certain to have been written by the people whose names are attached to them. He thinks that scholars have tended to avoid the word “forged” because of its negative connotations, but argues convincingly that much of the Bible is, indeed, forged.

Surprising, even to readers who have some familiarity with biblical scholarship, is Ehrman’s argument…which is the mainstream position among biblical scholars…that Jesus did not teach that he was divine. In only one Gospel, John, does Christ call himself divine, but John’s theology is radically different from that in the other three Gospels. Mentioned also is that “some of the most important Christian doctrines, such as that of a suffering Messiah, the trinity and the existence of heaven and hell,” were not held by Jesus himself and were not contemporaneous with him.”  The doctrine of the trinity only appears once in the New Testament, and the doctrine that Jesus is equal but not identical to God is found in none of the four Gospels.

Ehrman argues that we must remember who Jesus was: a radical millenarian Jew. Like the other Jewish prophets in the Palestine of his day, Jesus taught that a cosmic judge, the Son of Man, was coming soon to earth, but he did not regard himself as the Son of Man.

Jesus was not a Christian, but a Jewish apocalyptic prophet and rabbi. It was only from his followers that “Christianity” became a reality. Jesus preached a profoundly Jewish religion, It was the later self-proclaimed Christians (including John and Paul) who turned Christianity into the virulently anti-Semitic religion it was to become. Ehrman’s own attitude toward Christianity, evolved in a long and complex process. His realization that the Bible was merely a human document ended his literalist faith, but did not cause him to leave the church. Instead, he embraced Christianity as a “beautiful myth.”

What ultimately led Ehrman to leave the church was a more fundamental issue: the problem with evil, what theologians call theodicy. In his 2008 book “God’s Problem,” Ehrman explained that he could no longer believe in an all-knowing and all-powerful God in a world in which an innocent child dies of hunger every five seconds.

Overall the book is exceptionally writen and answers and explains many little known facts about the Bible and Christianity…most of which I’m sure many fundamentalists will disagree with.

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About the word of me
Interested in family and friends,grandchildren, photography, darkrooms, history, archaeology, scuba diving, computers, software, fast cars, journalism, writing, travel, ecology, news, science, and probably most other subjects you could think of. Did I mention family and friends?? I require iced tea or cold brewed coffee and a internet connection to be fully functional. Sometimes there are just so many words in my head they spill out.

One Response to Historical Criticism of the Bible

  1. Generally I do not post on blogs, but I would like to say that this post really forced me to do so, Excellent post!

    I’m Out! 🙂

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