This is my personal blog. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the congregations I serve.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Ehrman's Forgeries.



Bart Ehrman’s latest book is apparently another attack on the integrity of the New Testament.  At one time, Bart was a fine scholar.  Now his work has deteriorated to where it is close to hate speech.  If he made the same claims about the foundational documents of Judaism, Islam, or Buddhism, as he does about Christianity, he would rightly be dismissed as a bigot.

All of us who attended a respectable seminary in the last 150 years have known about pseudonymous authorship.  According to the mainstream of scholarship, many of the books of the New Testament were not authored by the figures to whom they are attributed.  This was a common practice in the ancient world.  But when Christians who were raised on literalist and fundamentalist interpretations of the Bible learn this, it can shake their faith.  This seems to be what happened to Ehrman.  He came out of an extremely conservative church background, and when he attended seminary and started learning about things like pseudonymous authorship, he felt a great sense of liberation.

Bart apparently wanted to share his sense of liberation by becoming a teacher and bringing his students to appreciate what he had discovered about the text of the New Testament.  This is fine.  I am of the opinion that seminary graduates have been criminally negligent in not bringing this data to the church; instead they cave in to whatever sentimental, mindless prejudice they find among their church members; as a matter of self-preservation, no doubt.  If you are a young minister, right out of seminary, and the people who pay your salary get much of their biblical information during the week from radio dingbats like Harold Camping, you have a lot of incentive to keep ideas like pseudonymous authorship to yourself.

So along with having to deal with nasty, self-righteous, violent, judgmental fundamentalists, the church also has to endure the backlash of people like Ehrman who were abused by those fundamentalists, and who now relish exacting their revenge by attacking Christianity.  I realize there is a great deal about historical, institutional Christianity that deserves critique and even condemnation.  But inventing bad motives and applying modern publishing standards to people writing 2000 years ago is idiotic.  

I grew up in the mainline church.  My pastor father would talk about pseudonymous authorship, or the documentary hypothesis (the theory that there were four distinct writers of the Penteteuch), at the dinner table.  This only made the Bible more interesting and exciting for me.  We had no ideological blinders that said if you didn’t take the whole Bible literally you were saying it was all a lie.  So I had trouble relating to my fellow students at seminary whose very faith in God was shaken by the suggestion that there might actually have been two or three authors of the Book of Isaiah, or that the same person who wrote Romans probably did not write Titus.

Pseudonymous authorship is the tip of the iceberg.  There are other problems as well.  The text of the New Testament in Greek has thousands of variants.  (Ehrman worte a book about this, too, trumpeting the “unreliability” of the whole New Testament.)  When scholars study the oldest texts we have – and new shreds of papyrus are being found all the time – they compare them against each other.  It turns out that there are a great many differences between these texts.  Most of them are not very significant.  Others involve major alternative readings, changing or omitting close to whole chapters!  Finding this out can be a threat to people who imagine there is one, reliable, steadfast, original text of the New Testament.  In reality, every translation committee has to use its judgment and philosophy to decide which readings to emphasize, and which get relegated to the footnotes or excluded altogether.

Another challenge is the unearthing of many long-lost books with subject matter similar to that of the New Testament.  These books were rejected from the canon of the New Testament for various reasons.  One main justification for this non-inclusion had to do with the fact that they had a weak claim to apostolic authorship.  (Although the New Testament books Ehrman labels as “forgeries” are far older and have much stronger claims than the later books also attributed to the apostles.  Ehrman doesn’t seem to dismiss these later books as “forgeries,” however.  He has written and spoken widely bemoaning their exclusion.)  Many of these books were left out because they were not accepted by a broad consensus of the church, or because they emitted doctrines at a great variance with what was already accepted.  (And I mean a great variance.  There are a wide range of theologies in the New Testament as it is.)  Some are just plain bizarre.  But Ehrman and others have used this as an opportunity to vilify the leadership of the early church as a closed-minded, dogmatic Gestapo for not opening the canon to these books, many of which are weird, repulsive, incomprehensible, and/or impossible to harmonize with Jesus’ accepted teachings.  But then, anachronistically applying modern categories and standards to people and documents from the ancient world is Ehrman’s standard MO.     

In the case of Ehrman, he has been getting a wildly positive response from the media for his “exposés” of the many “discrepancies” and “forgeries” in the New Testament, and for his bringing to light many “repressed” documents of the early church.  He is a regular fixture on cable TV and public radio; his lectures are sold as CD sets; his books sell well.  I have no doubt he has become more wealthy than is customary for a New Testament scholar.  This appears to suit him.

A few years ago Ehrman renounced whatever was left of his faith in Jesus, and devoted himself full-time to the remunerative task of repackaging modern biblical scholarship, framing it in the most negative way possible, and selling it to audiences eager to swallow anything condemning of Christianity.     

So: “pseudonymous authorship” or “forgery”?

If scholars decided that Hamlet was not written by Shakespeare, but by a friend and admirer of Shakespeare, would that make the play any less powerful or meaningful?  Why then does the Letter to the Ephesians become vilified as a “forgery” when some scholars suggest it was not written by Paul, but maybe by a younger associate of his? 

Is Moby Dick any less of a novel because it was not written by a Native American named Ishmael, as is clearly claimed on the first page?  Is this a forgery?  Is Melville lying?  

When the Bible attributes some Psalms to King David, even though scholarship tells us it is very unlikely that the historical David actually wrote many, if any, of them, are these beautiful, abiding, powerful, and profound religious poems now to be dismissed as “forgeries”?    

When a female novelist, like “George Eliot,” writes under a male pseudonym so as to obtain a better hearing in her patriarchal culture, is that “forgery”?  Is she cynically lying in order to bamboozle book buyers?  Should we now stop reading Middlemarch?

I could go on like this. 

What about the value of these writings as literature, no matter who wrote them?  What about the centuries of spiritual nourishment the books of the New Testament have given to people?  At this point their actual authorship is immaterial, even if we could know, which we can’t.

Ehrman has degenerated into a shrill, pathetic, mercenary voice, barely worth responding to, were it not for the fact that the uninformed seem to be listening to him.  He appears to have imputed some of his own motives to the writers of many New Testament books: they are only out to make a buck and push their personal agenda.

In the end, the Holy Spirit has always used figures like Ehrman to strengthen the church while transforming it.  At least now this information is no longer a secret maintained by specialized academics.  And now we are also freed from the ecclesiastical party-line about things like authorship.  This means we can focus with greater intensity on the words themselves, in all their diversity and tension, and come to a better understanding of the Word to whom they witness, and, most importantly, what it means to follow him. 

      

5 comments:

Beloved Spear said...

I've integrated historical-critical scholarship into my sermons and classes since day one. This did cause some...consternation...amongst the folks who were of a more evangelical persuasion in the church. On the other hand, I've been explicit about saying: the Bible is a sacred document. It forms my life.

Ehrman can be difficult, but only if your view of faith is essentially defined by fundamentalist literalism. I remember hitting my first hard-core scholarship at U.VA in the religious studies program. It lit up my faith. All the things I'd struggled with in the Bible suddenly made sense.

Paul Rack said...

Same here. I have tried to bring the findings of critical scholarship into my ministry since the beginning.

I knew Bart in seminary, briefly. His early work was very good. But I am finding that his last few books are little more than sensationalized screeds.

A lot of this is in how it is framed. It is one thing to recognize the dramatic and messy ways these texts get written, canonized, and disseminated. I always find that story fascinating and enlightening! It enhances the meaning for me. But it is another to use scholarship to conclude that these are worthless forgeries, or that this or that text is worthless because some academic claims it is not original to Jesus, or Paul, or Isaiah, or whomever.

Paul Rack said...

Same here. I have tried to bring the findings of critical scholarship into my ministry since the beginning.

I knew Bart in seminary, briefly. His early work was very good. But I am finding that his last few books are little more than sensationalized screeds.

A lot of this is in how it is framed. It is one thing to recognize the dramatic and messy ways these texts get written, canonized, and disseminated. I always find that story fascinating and enlightening! It enhances the meaning for me. But it is another to use scholarship to conclude that these are worthless forgeries, or that this or that text is worthless because some academic claims it is not original to Jesus, or Paul, or Isaiah, or whomever.

Paul Rack said...

Sorry for the double post. Not quite sure how it happened....

Carl said...

Beautifully written, Paul. Pretty much sums up my thoughts about Bart's recent work as well. (I remember him from seminary, too.) It's a shame that, after all the experience he's had with mainline Protestant churches in our diversity, that he still seems to lump us in with the fundamentalists. Not very observant on his part.