Is Bart Ehrman Confused?

My wife and I are planning on having dinner in a couple of weeks with one of her co-workers who is apparently quite taken with the darling of the liberal media, Dr. Bart Ehrman of the University of North Carolina. For that reason, I’ve been looking back through the “Ehrman section” of my library.

Dr. Ehrman was a textual critic who studied under the late Dr. Bruce Metzger of Princeton. I say “was” because Dr. Ehrman has been writing popular works that are seriously outside his field for going on a decade now.

Dr. Ehrman’s best book dealing with text-critical questions is The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture: The Effect of Early Christological Controversies on the Text of the New Testament, published by Oxford University Press in 1993. His best known work, however, is probably Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why, published by HarperOne in 2005.

It should be clear to anyone that has read more than one post on this blog that Dr. Ehrman and I are going to disagree sharply on several fronts; there is one thing, however, regarding Dr. Ehrman’s work that drives me absolutely insane.

I have never seen a man who is so good at saying two different things to two different audiences. Let me illustrate: when speaking before an audience of fellow textual critics at a meeting of the Society for Biblical Literature in San Francisco in 1997, Ehrman commented,

If the primary purpose of [textual criticism] is to get back to the original text, we may as well admit either defeat or victory, depending on how one chooses to look at it, because we’re not going to get much closer to the original text than we already are…at this stage, our work on the original amounts to little more than tinkering.

In his college textbook The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings, published by Oxford University Press in 2003, Ehrman says,

In spite of these remarkable [textual] differences, scholars are convinced that we can reconstruct the original words of the New Testament with reasonable (though probably not 100 percent) accuracy. (481)

Based on those quotes, it sounds like Ehrman would align himself with those individuals who, like myself, are fairly certain about what the wording of the autographic text is.

But then there is what he has written in his wildly popular book, Lost Christianites:

The fact that we have thousands of New Testament manuscripts does not in itself mean that we can rest assured that we know what the original text said. If we have very few early copies — in fact, scarcely any — how can we know that the text was not changed significantly before the New Testament came to be reproduced in such large quantities? (219.)

Based on the latter quote (and others like it in Misquoting Jesus), it was seem that Ehrman thinks that we have no certainty whatsoever about the wording of the original text!

Do you see why I’m so frustrated with Bart Ehrman?

I am frustrated on two fronts: first, there is the inherently self-contradictory nature of these quotes. Dr. Ehrman doesn’t get to have it both ways! Either our text-critical work on the New Testament is so nearly complete that all that’s left is “tinkering”, or we can’t be certain in any way, shape, or fashion about the wording of the original.

But far more serious is the second front: it seems that Ehrman tailors his message to the audience he’s writing or speaking to. In front of a group of fellow textual critics, he doesn’t dare make the kind of outlandish claims that he makes in his works aimed at the individual browsing the “Religion and Spirituality” section of Barnes and Noble. The reason is clear: if he made those kind of claims in front of the Textual Criticism Section of the Society of Biblical Literature, he would get eaten alive because that audience knows he can’t support those claims.

In short, I’d be very careful about taking any of the claims in Ehrman’s pop works seriously — it seems that he likes to deliberately mislead an uneducated public.


7 thoughts on “Is Bart Ehrman Confused?

  1. Something very telling about Ehrman is how he began doubting his “Christian experience” in the first place. I understand that he was writing a paper defending a passage in the Gospel of St Mark which appeared contradictory (not sure which passage off-hand). In the course of writing the paper, he came up with one or more plausible reasons which he believeed explained this contradicion, and on his paper the professor wrote “but what if Mark was just plain wrong?” And supposedly that one situation led to his entire demise of faith and his subsequent claims of error after error in the Bible. BTW Is “hogwash” still a commonly used word?

    All I can say is, that was not much of a faith in the first place if that one thing, which had plausible explanations he himself had pointed out, derailed him as he claims. Not judging hearts here nor his experience…just saying I find it rather difficult to believe he had actual faith to begin with. I am also pretty nearly sure there was “more to the story,” secret anger, rebelllion of some sort, or the like, at work within him long before Professor “X” wrote the one comment that ruined his Christianity once and for all.

    I may struggle with lots of questions–and I do–but no one will ever, and I mean ever, be able to shake my faith in the Triintiarian Godhead and the salvific power of the bodliy, incarnational life, death and Resurrection of Jesus who is the Christ. It cannot happen. Once you go beyond “thinking” something is true to “knowing” it is true, even through invisible eyes such as faith, no one else can rob you of it. No one.

    In short, his god is his own intellect, and his own writings have become his holy books. As you well pointed out, he needs to be read with discernment. Lots of it.

    • There are some serious problems with Dr. Ehrman — no question about it — but what disturbs about Ehrman, perhaps the most, isn’t the data that he cites. Ehrman is incredibly careful with his data citation, but the spin that he puts on the data is troubling.

      • I agree. And I think that goes directly back to the reasons he “left” Christianity–one could put various spins on the Mark accounts, but he CHOSE the spin based upon doubt of its authenticity. When we do that we stay afloat in doubts and they can only build up.

  2. My impression of Ehrman is that now that he’s had a taste of popular fame and money, he’s sold out whatever critical and scholarly values he still had left to sell the masses what they want: anything with a sensational title and a thesis, however empty, that seems to undermine traditional Christianity. He’s like the Richard Dawkins of textual studies, and has the same insidious influence: he puts a negative spin on neutral or even supporting facts that reinforces any doubts and opposition the reader already has. I really hate to see a struggling Christian get a hold of Ehrman — his kind of arguments prey on weak and wounded believers and nip in the bud so many seeds of faith in seekers.

  3. Dr.Bart has a very slick tongue. Some of what he says borders on lying. I don’t understand how he can hold an academic seat such he does and get away with his statement and lack of integrity.

  4. The central issue that permeates the writings of Dr. Ehrman, is the fact that there was no concept of a “bible” within the community of the first Christians. There is no evidence that the leaders of the new religion wanted to create a “manual” to describe the religion. If you believe Jesus performed miracles and could feed 5000 with a few fish, why did he not just create a manual/Bible on the spot? Neither Peter nor any of the other apostles who knew Jesus for about 3 years, bothered to write down the sayings and teachings of Jesus. Paul, who never met Jesus, wrote a great deal of the NT. But he did it as letters to specific churches. It never occurred to him to write down one definitive manual or faq for all churches. Paul never told the churches to treat his letters on a par with the scriptures of the OT.
    In fact, there is no definition of a “New Testament” till the 4th century. Long after the originals of the included texts were lost and long after it was possible to authenticate the copies. Which, as Ehrman and other scholars have shown, lead to many forgeries, pseudepigrapha, and intentional changes being included in the canonical version. The intentional changes were made to support particular aspects of the religion. E.g. the trinity.
    Even after the canonical version was defined, it never occurred to the Bishops to include in the Bible a statement that no books could be added or removed. This allows the Mormons to claim their silly addenda to be on a par with the rest of the NT.

"I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them. For such persons do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites, and by smooth talk and flattery they deceive the hearts of the naïve." (Romans 16:17-18) Please read "The Comments Policy."

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