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Tuesday, August 28, 2007
Tuesday Book Club - Misquoting Jesus Part 4
Bart Ehrman's Misquoting Jesus not only spent weeks on the bestseller list, but it also sparked a wave of controversy. One can find numerous critiques on the internet and the reaction books like Misquotes in Misquoting Jesus: Why You Can Still Believe and Misquoting Truth: A Guide to the Fallacies of Bart Ehrman's Misquoting Jesus are hitting the shelves. But what is the big deal? Most of the criticisms are not about the concept of textual criticism itself (I guess its hard to critique something you don't think exists), but more about details Ehrman deals with and most significantly about Ehrman's personal faith and agenda. In fact most reviews of the book give it credit for being a good basic introduction to Textual Criticism 101 - it's about stuff most Bible scholars know already. But beyond that the criticisms start pouring in. While the examination of the details of the book is helpful for a balanced perspective of the facts, I want to address a few of the most common ideological criticisms of the book here. (and yes this is really long and scattered...)

1. Ehrman is being provocative and fear-mongering without cause. Most scholars see nothing really new in Ehrman's arguments and so dislike his attempt to shock the lay believer with his ideas. This angle chides Ehrman for trying to be popular by making the average Christian doubt their faith. The assumption is that the average believer is incapable of sifting through the issues and discerning truth from agenda. Basically that we are too stupid to cope with the basics of Biblical scholarship. A couple of quotes from critics -
"One almost gets the impression that he is encouraging the Chicken Littles in the Christian community to panic at data that they are simply not prepared to wrestle with. Time and time again in the book, highly charged statements are put forth that the untrained person simply cannot sift through. And that approach resembles more an alarmist mentality than what a mature, master teacher is able to offer. "

"Lay Christians DO NOT know this information. And more to the point, if they did, how could they trust the church, OR the Bible again? For centuries, members have been told that the Bible is the divinely inspired, inerrant word of God. This has been translated to mean that God actually guided the hands of the books' authors. Within Christian churches this has been debated, but there is no question that a large number of Christians lean to the "guided" hand idea---which is why many churches do NOT preach on biblical history or theology regarding biblical canonization or textual criticism"
2. Ehrman feels like he has to prove something to himself and others by converting them to his liberal agenda. Since Ehrman was exposed to an imbalanced fundamentalist form of Christianity (at Moody and Wheaton), he is just working through his emotional wounds in book form. If he was more balanced he wouldn't make such extreme statements. He also knows what he believes and his agenda is to convert others to believe as he does. That apparently is not respectable or scholarly. Plus it is liberal which according to some cannot be equated with true Christianity.
"In fact, I believe that his need to support his own rejection of his early fundamentalism and his ultimate rejection of Christianity as a whole (now an agnostic), has caused him to seek out the minority text–and to support the ’strange’ variant, all under the pretext of ‘good’ scholarship."

"I believe that he wrote a ‘popular’ book on this subject (that is- a book for popular use rather than a scholarly work) to combat the influence of the Bible in the lives of millions of Christians and in everyday decisions made by believers–including political choices. Why do I say That?: A major promotion of the book–major publisher, major book stores, major media exposure, radio and TV interviews, plus major print media reviews–all with an unstated underlying liberal hope of finally getting at those darn ‘red state’–’Bible Belt’ evangelical conservative Christians... Political issues are noted in the introduction and the conclusion of the book. (Page 14- “…abortion, women’s rights, gay rights, religious supremacy, Western-style democracy, and the like?”; page 217- “..homosexuality, women in the church, abortion, divorce, and even American foreign policy…”). Ehrman seems to imply that our ‘fundamentalist’ belief in the Bible texts, cause us to make unfortunate conservative decisions.
3. Ehrman misunderstands inspiration and inerrancy. Ehrman thinks that inerrant means that God dictated the Bible to the writers. But "most Evangelical scholars believe that the words are ‘God-breathed’ and inspired, but recognize that the writings still reflect the style and language of the human authors. Many would also contend that the ‘verbal/plenary’ understanding of inspiration, goes somewhat beyond the historical orthodox Christian teaching on inerrancy." So they say Ehrman is attacking an understanding of scripture that doesn't really exist among scholars. To this I wonder if the academic ivory tower got in the way of observing reality. Ehrman is writing a popular level book, and is respond to what the lay Christian thinks. And many average believers think that God dictated scripture not matter what the scholars may say.

4. Ehrman strays from evangelical Biblical belief. Since he no longer trusts what the Bible says about itself nor the evangelical doctrine of scripture, he is out of bounds and is trying to make good Christians lose their faith. Presenting these ideas only serves to weaken faith and destroy belief. Doubt will creep in if Christians engage with outside opinions and so they shouldn't risk being exposed to opposing viewpoints.
"The fact is, he has taken an unnecessary and illogical leap into spiritual quicksand by trusting his own fallible reason over what we are expressly told in the infallible Word of God: Holy Scripture is ultimately divine, not human, in its origin. If you are a skeptic who has read Bart Ehrman's book, it is likely that you found it to be a comfortable and scholarly affirmation of your skepticism. Being satisfied in this way, you will likely look no further. Misquoting Jesus has become your blissful Nirvana, isolating you from the difficulties related to facing the facts which would challenge your position. If you have already made the decision to become "a happy agnostic," based on Bart Ehrman's book, I urge you to reconsider... Given the uncertainty and brevity of life, this is a matter you need to take seriously now, because one day soon—likely sooner than you think—your agnostic "happiness," like Bart Ehrman's, will come to a sudden and terrifying end.

How do you respond to these sorts of criticisms? What others have you heard? Do they aid in your understanding of the book or the ideas behind the book? As lay believers is it difficult to find balanced and helpful ways to engage with these issues?

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posted by Julie at 11:02 AM ¤ Permalink ¤


  • At 8/28/2007 01:47:00 PM, Blogger TimothyPaulJones

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  • At 8/28/2007 01:52:00 PM, Blogger TimothyPaulJones

    I'm somewhat curious whether you've read Misquoting Truth. It's listed as a "reaction" and classed with a reactionary tractate. Where precisely in Misquoting Truth do you find reactionary content? Or any of the other attitudes that you rightly critique in your review? Thanks!

  • At 8/28/2007 02:40:00 PM, Blogger Wilhelmina

    I guess I expect these sorts of reactions and dismiss them, even if they make me a little grumpy. It is too bad that there is a Christian element that has such fear and wants to confine other Christians to their limited view of God. It must be very scary for them to encounter a book like "Misquoting Jesus". I've found my faith expanded by books like this. God is allowed to be a bigger God when he is not confined merely to the error-ridden Bible.

  • At 8/28/2007 03:31:00 PM, Anonymous jessica

    This reminded me of a joke I heard recently, told by a Catholic priest about Catholics, so I feel free to repeat it:

    A new soul entered heaven and Michael was taking it on a tour of heaven. Everywhere there was rejoicing and singing. Each building they walked through was completely different and beautiful, but everywhere there was the loud sound of praise. Then they came to a building that was set apart from all the other buildings and from which no noise came. As they entered, Michael told the soul to be very quiet. The soul asked why and Michael answered, "Because these are Roman Catholics and they think they're the only ones here."

    I have a lot of good Catholic friends, so this is in no way meant to be disparaging, but it did make a very good point. Almost every group believes that they are the only "true" faith, the only "true" recipients of salvation and choose to judge and condemn others who differ in opinions rather than embrace the possibility that they may have a portion of the truth as well.

    I think its necessary to read both Ehrman's opinions and conclusions and the reactions to those conclusions with the attitude that both are seeking to speak truth, but, as flawed human beings, will never be able to speak the whole truth. Unfortunately, most reactionaries that were quoted, don't give Ehrman the benefit of this kind of attitude. And that's where I begin to find it difficult to take them seriously. Especially, when they claim that lay readers will only be confused and begin to panic. I agree that most lay readers don't have enough educational background to really process the book and be able to find a balance in their own minds regarding inspiration/inerrancy and faith. BUT, I do think that with a little open, honest conversation regarding these issues, most lay people would benefit from and maybe even enjoy knowing that God has used the Bible as an impressive tool in so many ways/people/lives despite its inaccuracies and the fallibility of the humans that wrote the books. Although, I have been in student culture (with its attitude of learning and questioning popular opinion/authority) so long that perhaps I am misjudging the majority of churchgoers out there, who don't really want to "learn" about the Bible, but would rather be "fed" without knowing the ins and outs of how the Bible came to be and how it can be interpreted. Perhaps it is equally wrong to force these kinds of questions and issues on people as it is to willfully suppress them and refuse to discuss them.

  • At 8/28/2007 07:29:00 PM, Blogger Heather

    I'd have a hard time taking the last critique seriously. First, it plays on the fear card, by saying that if not taking seriously, the happy life comes to a "sudden and terrifying end."

    That, and the critique seems to not understand how a skeptic works: they wouldn't just stop at this book, they'd read all sides, in order to get the best picture. If anything, the author of the critique seems to feel that skeptics would treat Ehrman's book like some sort of Bible.

    For me, with any critiques like this, I often wonder why it matters. If they're reacting this strongly to his book by saying that it's trivial, aren't they defeating their very own words? If Ehrman's book were that simplistic, why would all the rebuttals be necessary? Why couldn't the book stand on simplicity on its own? They just seem to be adding to the fire they're so fearful of.

  • At 8/29/2007 02:10:00 PM, Blogger Michele L

    It reminds me we all have a view. No one person will ever know or understand all of the possible information in any topic. I would say just as others have strong critiques of Erhman's agenda, implied bitterness, etc. they to have a context that fuels why their opinion is what it is. I guess I take it with a grain of salt.

    I am more impressed with critiques that have good reasoned backing, and less of an attack on the person or supposed agenda. It turns me off if it just sounds like a "cat fight".

  • At 8/29/2007 05:14:00 PM, Blogger Julie

    Hey Timothy - Thanks for showing up here. I personally have not read your book, but I have read a few reviews of it. I classified it as a reaction because it was published as a response (reaction) to a book that was already out there. I mainly pointed it out to show that Ehrman's book was popular enough to merit books published to critique it. There are various sorts of critiques, and as I mentioned, I decided to narrow my focus to ideological ones here.

  • At 8/30/2007 04:47:00 PM, Blogger TimothyPaulJones

    Thanks for your reply! I would be interested in knowing, if anyone's read Misquoting Truth, whether they find it to fit in any way the profile of an angry reaction. It was my hope as I wrote that it would simultaneously express appreciation for Ehrman's strong points while critiquing his weaker points.

  • At 8/30/2007 05:51:00 PM, Anonymous Karen

    I think it is true that some can become very reactionary and throw out the solid, scholarly research of those they disagree with.

    However, I think there is something to those who are critiquing Ehrman. Do those who critique Ehrman have legitimate concerns?

    Ehrman makes this statement in his book, "The Bible began to appear to me as a very human book. Just as human scribes had copied, and changed, the texts of scripture, so too had human authors originally written the texts of scripture. This was a human book from beginning to end" (p. 11).

    Ehrman came to this view because of his studies of textual criticism and feeling the Bible had too many errors to be divinely inspired. This a profound thing--whether one views the Bible as only a human book or whether one views it as truth from God.

    If the Bible is only human, that completely affects one's understanding of the truth in it. And, it really doesn't need to be taken all that seriously. So, this is a big deal that Ehrman says the Bible is only human and then sets out to write a book on why he believes it is only human. Is it any wonder that some people would be concerned?

    Ehrman is a Ph.D. scholar--of course people are going to be persuaded by him. And, I am as concerned as some others about the ramification of people seeing the Bible as only human. If it is only human and does not contain God's divine truth--then the stories of Christ's resurrection is nothing but a story. And not something I can hang my whole life on or die for.

    Ehrman's views on the Bible ultimately led him to become agnostic. That is significant! And, folks reading this book could easily come to the same conclusion he did--and become agnostic too. That is a very profound consequence.

    Do we care whether someone might become agnostic as Ehrman did? Why or why not?

    I am not a reactionary--I think Ehrman has many good points and good scholarship--but as a person who "pastors" others and wants to point them to God it concerns me. I love God, and I want people to know that he exists, that he has spoken to us human beings, and that his truth matters--profoundly matters.

    Ehrman's book is not just a book on textual criticism; its not just an intellectually stimulating read--it is making very serious assertions and attempting to influence others (as any book does) to accept those assertions. If others accept his assertions entirely that has huge ramifications on that person's life.

    PS: also are we classifying anyone who disagrees with Ehrman as "reactionary"? I sometimes get the feeling folks are accepting everything Ehrman says without question.

    PSS: Timothy, thanks for stopping by. I just recently heard of your book and will plan to read it.


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