Monday, May 18, 2009

Jesus Was Way Cool

A friend sent me the link to this CNN story on Bart Ehrman, who's becoming more and more well-known as a popularizer of New Testament scholarship. The title, "Former fundamentalist 'debunks' Bible" is misleading, not least because neither Ehrman nor anyone quoted in the article uses the word "debunks" about his work. He's a professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and his specialty is New Testament textual criticism -- that is, the study of the manuscripts that contain the oldest copies of the New Testament writings.

I've read several of Ehrman's books, though not yet the new one, Jesus, Interrupted, that is evidently clinching its author's newfound notoriety. The first one I read was Jesus: the apocalyptic prophet of the new millennium (Oxford, 1999), which I happened on in a used bookstore; I wanted to catch up with scholarship on the "End Is Near" aspects of early Christianity, and Ehrman did a nice job on his subject, but nothing he said was new to me. But I went on to read his debunking of The Da Vinci Code (2004), his book on textual criticism Misquoting Jesus (2005), and Peter, Paul, and Mary Magdalene (2006), his book on three especially well-known early Christian figures. Truth and Fiction in The Da Vinci Code is especially worth reading if you've read Dan Brown's book (I have, with plenty of Dramamine at hand), seen the movie (I haven't -- there isn't enough Dramamine in the world), or read any of the debunking books by reactionary scholars Catholic or Protestant (so far I've read just one, Ben Witherington III's The Gospel Code: novel claims about Jesus, Mary Madgalene and Da Vinci [InterVarsity Press, 2004]). For Brown's fans no less than his critics, it must be hard to wrap one's head around the fact that someone like Ehrman would reject The Da Vinci Code's reconstruction of Christian history. Since Ehrman is not only a better historian but a better writer than Dan Brown, I'd strongly recommend that you read Truth and Fiction in The Da Vinci Code if you have any interest in the subject.

I'd had the impression that historical-Jesus studies has been largely spinning its wheels for the past couple of decades, and Bart Ehrman's work largely supports that view. As the CNN story reports, "Some scholarly critics say Ehrman is saying nothing new." Well, yeah. He's a popularizer, not an innovator, and he's explicit about that. In the preface to Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium, for example, he says that he's presenting "the view shared probably by the majority of scholars over the course of this century, at least in Germany and America" (ix), and he's right about that. In the introduction to Misquoting Jesus he notes that the text of the New Testament "has been a topic of sustained scholarship now for more than three hundred years," yet "there is scarcely a single book written about it for a lay audience -- that is, for those who know nothing about it, who don't have the Greek and other languages necessary for the in-depth study of it, who do not realize there is even a 'problem' with the text, but who would be intrigued to learn both what the problems are and how scholars have set about dealing with them" (15). While he goes on to say that he writes "based on my thirty years of thinking about the subject, and from the perspective that I now have," Ehrman's views are well within the mainstream of New Testament scholarship, though near the more "liberal" end of the spectrum. (I put "liberal" in quotes because it's not really the right word, but I don't know of a better one. "Skeptical"? "Critical"?) Even the most conservative academic New Testament scholars I've read agree in substance with much of what Ehrman says.

The only one of Ehrman's "critics" quoted by name in the CNN story,
Bishop William H. Willimon, an author and United Methodist Church bishop based in Alabama, says he doesn't like the "breathless tone" of Ehrman's work.

"He keeps presenting this stuff as if this is wonderful new knowledge that has been kept from you backward lay people and this is the stuff your preachers don't have the guts to tell, and I have," Willimon says. "There's a touch of arrogance in it."

Breathlessness and arrogance may be in the eye of the beholder. I don't agree with Willimon on any of his points. As my quotations from Ehrman show, he doesn't present his material as anything new, nor as something that has been withheld from laypeople. I wouldn't be surprised if many of his readers react that way, much as some of Michael Moore's or Noam Chomsky's do ("I'm so glad that somebody has finally had the guts to tell the truth!"), reading their own conspiracy theories into his work.

On the other hand, as far as I can tell it's true that most Christians (as well as most unbelievers) know little or nothing of what serious Bible scholarship could teach them. In his critique of The Da Vinci Code, for example, Ben Witherington III complains that we live "an age of biblical illiteracy, even within the church" (140); I agree, except that I'd substitute "especially" for "even." (In the same book Witherington asks rhetorically why "millions are buying tickets to Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ if the miraculous heart of the Gospel is not believed by “most” Americans?" [143]. Uh, maybe because we live in an age of biblical illiteracy?) That's why it's important that a mainstream scholar like Bart Ehrman is writing accessibly about the subject. It would be good if his readers would then read other writers too, to understand that experts in the field (like any other), disagree with each other. I'd recommend James Barr's Beyond Fundamentalism (Westminster, 1984), or, what the hell, Witherington's The Gospel Code, once you've read Ehrman's Truth and Fiction. You won't have much trouble finding such books at your public library or bookstore. Compare them, see how they agree or disagree with each other. Witherington has written a long critique of Ehrman, but he's really much closer to Ehrman on the scholarly questions than he is to most lay Christians.

Read the Bible too, at least the New Testament; for one thing, as Bart Ehrman says, "he immerses himself in the Bible, though he doesn't believe in its infallibility, because it's the most important book in Western civilization." I've read it, and I wouldn't disagree. For another thing, you may be surprised at how different the gospels are from the bits and pieces you've heard read in church, or seen in the movie versions or other retellings. Back when Martin Scorsese's film The Last Temptation of Christ was churning up controversy, I told Christians who objected to it that if someone filmed any of the gospels verbatim, faithful to the text, many Christians would be offended by it, because the portrayal of Jesus in the Bible is very different from the way modern orthodoxies see him. How would you direct that scene in Mark where, when Jesus is arrested, there's a young man with him dressed only in a linen sheet, who escapes naked when the soldiers grab the cloth to try to stop him? Or the exorcisms? Or Jesus' refusal to meet with his family? Remember to cast someone "MiddleEastern"-looking as Jesus, not another of the endless string of Northern European goyim we get in most Jesus movies; we don't really know what Jesus looked like, but it's a cinch he wasn't a WASP. The trouble with The Last Temptation of Christ was that it wasn't really disturbing enough.