Bart Ehrman annoys me to no end. Don’t get me wrong. I love reading his books most of the time. He’s one of my favorite apostates. (And I use this term in the correct Greek sense. It means “to stand away from.”)
What annoys me about Ehrman is the way he uses rapid fire statements as if they are affirmations of his views and uses statements like “scholarly consensus” and “overwhelming majority of Biblical scholars” to state his views while painting the rest of us as (at the least) naive or (at the worst) deliberate liars.
I am reading his book Jesus, Interrupted and it is amazing to see the narrow way that he interprets the Scriptures. In many ways, Ehrman is far more literal in his reading of the Gospels than most fundamentalists are. He is what I refer to as a restrictive literalist. He allows for only one way of reading the text. That way, it is easy to point and say, “See! Contradition!”
And what is his way of reading? To Ehrman, the gospels must be absolutely consistent with one another in order to be accurate. They must meet a modern (and purely hypothetical) standard of historical accuracy. If they don’t then they are clearly not worth following.
Let me be clear here. The gospels are not fully consistent on the details. When Ehrman points out differences in the gospels, for the most part he is right. The different gospels have some major variations in the way they tell the Jesus story.
But that doesn’t make them inaccurate. Ehrman has confused modern precision with ancient accuracy. The question he fails to ask is this: were gospels required to be consistent by the original audiences?
This is a vital question, and I think the answer is a resounding NO! If they had been, surely editors would have ironed out the kinks. Ehrman assumes that modern man can see what the ignorant ancients cannot. The ancient and medieval Christians could read just as well as modern ones can. They chose not to redact the gospels. Why? Clearly, there was a perceived intention on the part of the gospel writers that the readers did not wish to violate.
In no way do the variants of the Gospels negate the message of Jesus’ life, crucifixion and resurrection. These were oral traditions, communicating a message in a way that different faith communities could transmit it. They report the same life, the same journey but in different ways and sometimes using varying elements in their transmission.
Each gospel was written by a different person for a different faith community at a somewhat different moment in time. They show that the Christian faith was not the monolith that Ehrman seems to assume it had to be. This is actually quite surprising given that Ehrman is one of the main advocates for a diversity in pre-Nicaea Christianity.
Far from showing that Christianity is a lie and the gospels are fabrications, the diversity of voices of the gospels shows that the message of Jesus was so powerful that it could exist in four distinct but amazingly powerful gospels, circulated in different parts of the empire and then together without competition. We don’t have people yelling, “Only the gospel of Mark is accurate! Destroy your copies of John!” (Well, the Marcionites did, but they were weird.)
We do, however, have people holding to the four gospels we have today and rejecting many of the other pseudo-gospels that were circulating at the time. This does happen in church history. There was something about the four canonical gospels that made them hang together once they were together.
This is what Ehrman misses. He, in his academic ivory palace, wants to reject the work of the faith community. The gospels were not put together by bishops and church councils. The churches themselves united under the four gospels, and rejected the other gospels. The churches embraced the diversity of the gospels because they could.
In this sense, our modern intellectual rationalism is inferior to the ancient mind. We have lost the ability to embrace diversity, and I hope that this emerging postmodernity in which we live will grow backward to the ancient mind and its openness to diversity. I hope and pray that the modern inclination to believing its superiority to our peers of previous generations will become a relic.