Review: Jesus, Interrupted

Bart Ehrman's 'Jesus, Interrupted'I added Bart Ehrman’s Jesus, Interrupted to my stack of library books as a sort of antidote to the garbage I expected to be reading in the three I’ve reviewed previously. I’d heard good things about Ehrman’s scholarship and watched a short YouTube clip or two from his lectures, so I was pretty sure it would be worth my time. I hoped that, with its subtitle Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (And Why We Don’t Know About Them), it would give me some relevant points to bring up in future conversations with the friend of mine who’d recommended Jesus Under Fire. (He wasn’t too interested in reading the Skeptic’s Annotated Bible links I sent him.) I was not disappointed.

Ehrman does what Myers, Burge, and so many others didn’t feel the need to. He actually goes through the facts historians have about the time the New Testament purports to describe as well as why they think those points are factual. He discusses the procedures that Bible scholars use to analyze the text, explains why it makes sense to proceed in that way, and then works through some examples of what such analysis reveals. He examines the Gospel stories in detail, comparing and contrasting their claims. He even considers responses to what he’s written and then proceeds to show why those responses would not be satisfactory. Yes, sometimes this means it takes Ehrman many pages instead of a short paragraph or two to fully explain one point, and you have to have an attention span longer than that of a goldfish to read this book. On the other hand, it means he actually succeeds at making compelling arguments rather than just spitting out empty assertions.

I realize that, to any Christian reading this, it probably sounds like I enjoyed Jesus, Interrupted and didn’t like the earlier Christian books because I am an atheist. I’m vulnerable to cognitive biases as much as the next person, so I admit that is a possibility. It’s one I continually tried to check myself for, of course — but I don’t expect you to take my word for it. All I can really say is: read this book and then tell me what’s wrong with it. And if you have a book that makes compelling arguments for the integrity of the Bible (read: not just quoting the Bible over and over again), let me know what it is, and I’ll look into reading it, too.

Interestingly, even though I think that a Bible full of contradictions is a strong argument against Christianity (and I’m pretty sure that many other atheists are with me on this), Bart Ehrman himself does not. As a former evangelical Christian, he carefully reminds the reader that everything he is saying is well-known to religious scholars and widely agreed upon in academic theology; this book is full of things he was taught while studying in seminary. His friends and colleagues went on to lead churches after learning the same things. Based on this and his own experience [p. 269, ff.] , Ehrman points out that all the contradictions he discusses don’t necessarily make Christian faith impossible. It only made his faith liberal, and it wasn’t until later that he lost his faith altogether. I found this attitude frustratingly naive while I was reading, but I’ve come to see it as useful, at least. If it helps more Christians accept his points as legitimate, I’m okay with it. I prefer a Christian who acknowledges some obvious facts of reality to a Christian who does not, even if I prefer an atheist to both of them (all other things equal, of course). And these facts might plant a seed that leads to later reflection on the legitimacy of their faith as a whole.

I can’t possibly fit all the interesting, relevant points made in this book into a reasonable-length review. That’s why I do recommend reading it yourself, whatever your current views on the Bible may be. Ehrman compares the different Gospel stories to each other, and to the established historical timeline of various important figures and events. He compares the undisputed Pauline epistles to the stories about Paul in Acts, as well as to the other epistles, noting that the vast majority of scholars believe the pastoral epistles and 2 Peter were forged and that many doubt the authenticity of several others. (Actually, the section “Are There Forgeries in the New Testament?” [p. 112, ff.] is really great. I particularly liked Ehrman’s explanation of the term pseudepigraphy, basically fancy academic jargon synonymous with “forgery” but without the pesky negative connotations.) He works through a brief history of Christianity, showing how beliefs changed over time — and you can actually see the embellishment, rewriting, blending, etc. happening as you move through the books of the New Testament in chronological order.

Many of the contradictions Ehrman discusses in this book will be familiar to atheists who’ve argued about the Bible with Christians for any substantial amount of time. One thing that was new to me, though, was the certainty with which Ehrman argues that Jesus was a real historical person. I had previously been sort of uninterested in the question, because there’s such a difference between “the NT is ‘based on a true story‘ about a guy named Yeshua” and “Jesus existed exactly as described in the NT.” Ehrman’s “real historical person” ideas are more like the first option than the second. As he works forward chronologically he’s showing how the tenets of Christianity evolved, but at the same time it enables him to extrapolate backwards and make some pretty informed and reasonable-sounding guesses as to what the historical Jesus would have been like.

In the context of a story about discussing C.S. Lewis’ (in)famous “trilemma” in a lecture at UNC Chapel Hill in which he suggested adding a fourth option of “Legend,” Ehrman explains:

What I meant was not that Jesus himself was a legend. Of course not! I certainly believe that he existed and that we can say some things about him. What I meant was that the idea that he called himself God was a legend, which I believe it is. This means that he doesn’t have to be either a lawyer, a lunatic, or the Lord. He could be a first-century Palestinian Jew who had a message to proclaim other than his own divinity. [p. 142]

In the earliest Gospel in the NT, the book named “Mark,” Jesus is basically an apocalyptic preacher warning the people about a coming judgment and the destruction of the forces of evil. There’s nothing about a virgin birth, nothing about his birth at all in fact. In the other Synoptics, details get added and changed (or possibly separately added), leading to the chaotic Christmas story you see in pageants that is actually an amalgamation of stories, not matching any one biblical account. By the time we get to the book named “John,” Jesus’ divine nature is the focus, and his teachings are about how to worship — not about the apocalypse. Hmm.

For many historical critics it makes sense that John, the Gospel that was written last, no longer speaks about the imminent appearance on earth of the Son of Man to sit in judgment on the earth, to usher in the utopian kingdom. In Mark, Jesus predicts that the end will come right away, during his own generation, while the disciples are still alive (Mark 9:1, 13:30). By the time John was written, probably from 90 to 95 CE, that earlier generation had died out and most if not all of the disciples were already dead. That is, they died before the coming of the kingdom. What does one do with the teaching about an eternal kingdom here on earth if it never comes? One reinterprets the teaching. The way John reinterprets it is by altering the basic conceptualization. [p. 81]

Very few if any Christians I know see the Bible as an amalgamation of reinterpreted teachings. Most look at the Bible as one entity — and some even brag about how these 60-odd books written over millennia form one coherent story, citing this as evidence for the Bible’s overall truth. If you only took away one key point from Jesus, Interrupted, I hope it would be Ehrman’s response to this approach:

You can’t read these books as disinterested historical accounts. None of them is that. What would you do as a judge in a court trial in which you have conflicting testimony from eye witnesses? One thing you would certainly not do is assume that each witness is 100 percent correct. Someone–or everyone–is getting some information wrong. The trick would be to figure out who is wrong and who is right–if anyone is right. The same applies to ancient documents like those in the New Testament. If there is conflicting testimony about historical events, all the witnesses cannot be (historically) right, and we have to figure out ways to decide what most probably really happened. [p. 60]

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6 Comments

  1. “I realize that, to any Christian reading this, it probably sounds like I enjoyed Jesus, Interrupted and didn’t like the earlier Christian books because I am an atheist.”

    I wasn’t an atheist when I read it, in fact I still considered myself a Christian at the time, and I loved it as well. Now I’m not sure if I’m an atheist, but I’m definitely not a Christian. And I still love that book. Just for the record.

  2. Steven Carr

     /  July 10, 2011 at 4:19 am

    ‘In Mark, Jesus predicts that the end will come right away, during his own generation, while the disciples are still alive (Mark 9:1, 13:30). By the time John was written, probably from 90 to 95 CE, that earlier generation had died out and most if not all of the disciples were already dead. That is, they died before the coming of the kingdom. What does one do with the teaching about an eternal kingdom here on earth if it never comes? One reinterprets the teaching.’

    But Ehrman argues elsewhere that John was independent of Mark and if something appears in Mark and also in John it is likely to go back to Jesus.

    But if John is reinterprets teaching found in Mark, how do we know he did not get the teaching from Mark?

  3. Ehrman’s books are all good, though I enjoyed Misquoting Jesus the most. The discussions of textual criticism and specific alterations in the Bible are all good to know, but really, the biggest single revelation in these books is that theologians have known about all these things for ages and never tell the ordinary people in the pews!

  4. @Ebon: When I went back to the library to return all of these books, Misquoting Jesus was one of the ones I checked out next. I’m looking forward to it.

  5. Ebonmuse:”the biggest single revelation in these books is that theologians have known about all these things for ages and never tell the ordinary people in the pews!”

    I am sorry, I chuckled here. Yes, theologians know these things but they have a very different interpretation of the real data than does Ehrman. All must realize that they are getting an extremely filtered set of data from Ehrman. The man is smart but he is not all knowing. Sadly, I have to say, he is also gullible.

  6. grizzlybaker

     /  July 16, 2011 at 6:45 am

    Steven Carr: While one might call Mark the most “accurate” gospel, it was written some 30 to 40 years after Jesus’ death. John was written perhaps 30 years later. Both were written from the oral tradition that believers had been passing around for decades. The stories changed over time. We know John didn’t have Mark because the two are just too different. Compare the similarities in Mark and the other two gospel: Matthew and Luke clearly had access to Mark. John did not.

    A close reading of Mark, and an understanding of ancient Jewish apocalypticists, shows that Mark was clearly referring to an earthly kingdom that would happen immediately.

    It’s not that Ehrman has just decided that Mark and John had different opinions. It’s that, if you ignore church tradition and read the words yourself, a completely different picture emerges. One thing that Ehrman stresses over and over is that you shouldn’t try to build a consistent narrative because there simply isn’t one. They were different authors at different times with different thoughts on the matter, and the only way to make sense of it all is to let each author “speak for themselves.” Do this, and you see that Mark and John were talking about two different things.

    Thank you for this review NFQ. I picked the book up on your recommendation and loved it.

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