Ehrman Chapter 5 On Conflicts with Jews and Pagans (revised)

Darrell L. Bock's picture

This post will not be that long. The textual issues Ehrman takes up here are not that debated across the theological spectrum. But some points are still worth noting.

His claim that the author of Ephesians has intentionally deceived his audience about his own identity (p. 144) was taken up in an earlier post. The author of Ephesians contends that truth is something to be fought for against spiritual forces of evil. I only note here that Paul is quite capable of expressing such an idea as 2 Corinthians 11:1-6 shows.

Other points include Ehrman’s diatribe against the violence some in the name of Christianity have unleashed (and it has done so to its shame). Many have acted in ways not reflective of what Jesus taught, something that is sad and to be acknowledged.  

Other points need examining, such as Ehrman's suggestion that Jewish readers were right to reject Jesus’ messianic claims. On this debate, Ehrman does not read these texts either as ancient Christians nor ancient Jews did. Any check of the Dead Sea material shows that rather than reading these texts in isolation from each other and reading them in the rather flat, one dimensional way Ehrman does, many first century Jews read these texts as open to the future, often picturing in the near term what would also be expected in the long term, what is called a pattern or typological reading, such as with themes like the Day of the Lord, or the new exodus or new creation. The absolute nature of the hope expressed showed that the near term did not exhaust the promises made and so there was an expectation the text addressed more than the near term. Both groups (ancient Jews and the new believers in Jesus) rightly tried to make sense of these texts reading them together and trying to bring them into some type of coherent picture. In their view, these texts were divine and ultimately expressed some kind of a hope that could be unified. The result was the variety of expectations Ehrman does note as a part of ancient Jewish discussion, but a real debate about what these texts taught, far less cut and dry than Ehrman portrays.

My doctoral dissertation was on the use of the Hebrew Scripture in Luke-Acts for Christology. One of the surprises I ran into was how in Judaism of the time many of the texts the new community used were also seen as eschatological and about the end. The debate, for example, was not if Joel 2 was about the end but about where it fit. Isaiah 40 was widely appealed to as a text about the eschaton, even though it originally was about an earlier period. This is because Jews read these texts in a way that said, this is how God acts in our time and how he also will act in the end. Ehrman mentions none of this in his take on how Jews read these texts, ignoring what we see in many Jewish communities like the one at Qumran and among other Jewish groups that were looking for the end on the basis of their reading of Scripture. So early Jesus community appeals to make sense of these texts and bring them into some kind of unity was not as distant to Jewish discussion as his section suggests. What Ehrman has right is that the issue of Messiah’s power and authority was so dominant in Jewish expectation that the idea of a suffering Messiah was hard to accept. Only someone who integrated Isaiah 53 or pictures like Psalm 118 into the mix could move in this fresh direction.

There is one observation I wish to come back to that is important and has already been noted in earlier posts. The genre of these texts is important in terms of moving to an identification of forgery and pseudonymity. Some of the works in this chapter and the next one fall into the area of ancient romance with their legendary features. The figures who reach the sky in the resurrection portion of the Gospel of Peter point to this genre. In the next chapter, statues bowing before a young Jesus reflect another example of the same genre. But the nature of some of these materials, with their clear legendary features means some of these works may not have been taken seriously as telling the truth to begin with. In other words, they were in a genre seen as more entertaining and seen as exaggerated than stories to be taken at face value. This is one of the features debated about ancient legends. Were they read as history or recognized for the kind of rhetorical genre they were? If so, then the issue of forgery is diminished even in this scenario, for people may well have known that there was a tongue-in-cheek element to some of these accounts.

The one set of material close to what we have genre wise in the New Testament are the fabricated letters that involve Pilate. Ehrman is right that these materials were forged to place more exclusive blame on the Jews for Jesus’ death and possibly to suggest Rome was exonerated from responsibility for Jesus’ death. They were created as a kind of apologetic that defended Christians against charges about being a threat to Rome that Christians viewed as false. Unlike the New Testament texts, which show Pilate troubled to put Jesus to death but eventually agreeing to crucify him, these texts handle Pilate differently, either by making him repent after the fact or suggesting a mistake was made. The New Testament portrays Pilate as not the most just of judges, sending Jesus to a death Pilate really did not think Jesus deserved. These extra-biblical texts give more credit to Pilate than say a text like Acts 4:24-29 does in eventually noting that Pilate shared the blame for Jesus’ death.

Some of what Ehrman does in this chapter is to “back door” other issues not really relevant to his topic but that let him go over old ground. So we get a discussion of John 8 as we consider whether Jesus could write and whether he left any documents behind. Ehrman, unlike many scholars, appears to doubt whether such a story about the woman caught in adultery took place, even though many agree with him that it was not originally found in this location in John’s gospel. Ehrman likes to get in his licks whenever he can.

In dealing with persecution, Ehrman misses badly, not on the texts, but on the history and the tone of the period. On page 164, he speaks of the first serious empire-wide persecutions as falling under Decius in 249. Now the qualification Ehrman uses is that this is the first empire-wide persecution, but that obscures seriously the reality of what we know from Roman sources. In his work Annals (15.44) on his discussion of Nero and the fire of Rome in 64, Tacitus makes it clear that Christians were blamed for the fire by the emperor and suffered to a point that engendered sympathy among the Romans for the injustice involved. Pliny writes in his well known letter to the emperor Trajan in the early second century from Bythnia (nowhere near Rome in what is now central Turkey; See Pliny the Younger 10.96-97). He discusses how he was pressuring Christians to show their loyalty to the emperor and leave the faith. It also seems likely that during the time of Domitian Christians also experienced pressure as Eusebuis describes in Ecclesiastical History3.10.17). All of this set a climate in which official persecution was not necessary as the culture’s reaction to Christians gave room for less official types of pressure. What Ehrman does describe accurately is how pagans saw the Christians. Their refusal to engage in emperor worship or be open to the many gods was seen as disloyalty to the sate, “atheism”, and superstition (p. 166). This discussion leads him into treatment of the Sibylline Oracles, which are well summarized.

So in this chapter we get a series of additional examples of genuine forgeries, all falling outside of the New Testament. On this, all scholars agree. What is debated is whether or not what was done by some later was also done by the earliest Christians. A feature to note here is that the literature we are discussing here in this chapter is aimed at outsiders and defending Christianity before them. However, most of our New Testament texts are written to insiders, covering in house debates, a more intimate and personal setting. This factor may also make a difference in what one could have originally gotten away with in trying to represent their case.

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