Bart Ehrman’s Jesus, Interrupted by his own admission says nothing new. It packages what scholars have been saying in a very public way for two decades (As Ehrman points out, these issues go back centuries– and the positions he defends have been advocated for a few centuries. In fact, folks like Augustine and Origen were aware of the kinds of issues he raises).
Bart Ehrman’s Jesus, Interrupted by his own admission says nothing new. It packages what scholars have been saying in a very public way for two decades (As Ehrman points out, these issues go back centuries– and the positions he defends have been advocated for a few centuries. In fact, folks like Augustine and Origen were aware of the kinds of issues he raises). Since he learned the historical critical method in place of the devotional method, he discovered the Bible was full of contradictions and discrepancies, a completely human book with Christianity being a religion that is completely human in its origin and development. That is the core thesis of Bart Ehrman’s new book, who has become a one man marching band to make clear what everyone should know about the origins of the Christian faith. We cannot speak of the divine in any of this, he says, because historians cannot handle that kind of data. This represents a convenient limitation on what he can speak about (even as he makes all kinds of pronouncements about what is taking place and who is responsible).
One has to wonder when an author admits to providing nothing new in a book what the motive is for writing. He claims he seeks to inform. The book is really about packaging then. But to leave the criticism on this point would be to ignore the case Ehrman tries to make. The conservative writers Erhman apparently wishes to challenge (and mostly ignore) have engaged on all the "non-new" points Ehrman makes, even highlighting themselves the "human" side of the Bible’s production. But partly by caricature and partly by setting rules where God cannot be invoked in a historical discussion, Ehrman proceeds. God is not even able to be brought into the possibility of an interpretive spiral, because "miracles are not impossible," just very much unlikely and a least likely explanation (read a "next to impossible" category). I think what is most bothersome in this book is the way it sets up discussions, pursues a topic for several pages, often noting the point is not as devastating as the impression given (usually with a sentence that qualifies things so the author has cover) and then continues to launch in a direction that implies more than the evidence really gives, leaving a greater impression about what is said than the author claims in the qualification.
It would take a book to go through the examples– and that could be done. There are responses, scholarly credible ones. Let me take on one that also is highlighted in his promotional video on Amazon. In this piece, Ehrman claims (and then writes in the book) that Jesus dies in despair in Mark but as one in control in Luke. The key is to see the difference between citing Ps 22:1 in Mark and 31:5 in Luke. Now here is what Ehrman does not indicate to readers of his book in terms of applying the significance of key facts to this example. (1) Most scholars agree that Luke used Mark. Both Erhman and I agree with this point of Luke’s use of Mark. But he does not apply this fact to this example. I will show why it is important below. (2) Mark speaks of a second cry from the cross in his account. (3) Jesus in Mark (and in the Mark Luke works with) is predicting his death and choosing to face his death long before the pain of the cross. (4) In fact, Jesus supplies the very testimony against himself at the Jewish trial scene that leads into his crucifixion in Mark 14:62, hardly the act of a completely despairing man. I make this last point because Erhman wants to preclude a citation of Ps 22:1 being uttered to point to the entire lament. This example of reading (almost in the very flat, excessively literal fundamentalistic straw man manner he wants to criticize) happens throughout the book. This is just an especially good example of it. In the midst of discussing Luke he claims Jesus has no substitution of sin in his theology, ignoring the explicit statement in Acts 20:28 (remember we are discussing Luke’s theology here as the basis for his changes). Another feature of Ehrman’s approach is that he is consistently appeals to what are possible readings of text’s in combination reading while chiding those who combine things differently and more harmoniously. Remember we are speaking of writers who respected each other enough to be using their material. What I would claim from this example is (1) Luke does highlight Jesus’ control of the situation to a degree Mark does not (so Ehrman and I would agree here that this is true). However, conservatives have affirmed the different emphases between gospel writers for years (I even wrote a book working through this called Jesus according to Scripture) and numerous commentaries by scholars (not all conservative) could see such differences without going on to create the theological distance Ehrman does between Mark and Luke. (2) Luke, knowing of the second cry in Mark, supplies what else Jesus said in a process not unlike a lawyer or an investigator might follow up on such a detail. Now we could discuss and debate whether Luke made this second saying up (as I suspect Ehrman might argue) or whether he had access to sources (as I am inclined to think), but my point is that one can easily read Luke as supplementing Mark here not completely rejecting Mark’s portrait of Jesus. Luke could do so while omitting reference to Ps 22:1 because its content was already known from Mark. It is important to note that Luke’s locale of this utterance comes at the spot where the second cry comes in Mark. (3) The theologies are not in as great an opposition to each other as Ehrman claims. Rather what we have are emphases in which Jesus goes triumphantly in his death genuinely fully suffering as Mark shows, presenting Jesus as an example to suffer. (If Jesus is as desparing as Ehrman suggests then Jesus ceases to be the example Mark sets forth.) Luke shows a Jesus also in control, something the other passages in Mark also indicate.
There is more I could say, but I have to catch my plane now. More will be coming. Just take this as an initial indication that Jesus, Interrupted adds nothing new and understates or ignores much. Read it for yourself and see how many of the issues he raises have been addressed by others already.
(Revisions undertaken in response to comments from Jonathan, thanks for the dialogue)