About the Authors
Andreas J. Köstenberger is senior professor of New Testament and Biblical Theology, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, Wake Forest, NC and director of acquisitions, B&H Academic.
Darrell L. Bock (Ph.D., University of Aberdeen) is executive director of Cultural Engagement and senior research professor of New Testament Studies at Dallas Theological Seminary.
Josh Chatraw (Ph.D., Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary) is the pastor of preaching and students at First Baptist Church in Dublin, Georgia as well as adjunct professor at Brewton-Parker College, Zambia International Bible College, and Liberty University.
Truth in a Culture of Doubt deals with skeptical challenges to the Bible by looking at various aspects of Bart Ehrman’s work. It challenges many of his fundamental arguments against Christianity ranging from the problem of evil and suffering to the nature of the ancient manuscripts upon which the text of the Bible is based. The authors maintain that a skewed and unfair reading of the evidence lies behind Ehrman’s critique.
Table of Contents
Introduction: From Fundamentalist to Skeptic
1. Is God Immoral Because He Allows Suffering?
2. Is the Bible Full of Irrevocable Contradictions?
3. Are the Biblical Manuscripts Corrupt?
4. Were There Many Christianities?
5. Are Many New Testament Documents Forged?
Conclusion: Reasons to Believe
From Fundamentalist to Skeptic
The authors first provide some background information regarding Bart Ehrman and the ways in which his work attempts to put into question and tear down traditional, orthodox Christianity. This is a far cry from his days at Moody Bible Institute and Wheaton College. Bart Ehrman was a committed Christian and a fundamentalist. His skepticism began in graduate school at Princeton Seminary. In a paper dealing with an apparent contradiction in Mark’s Gospel, Ehrman came to the simple conclusion: Mark made a mistake. This conclusion, of course, had massive consequences for Ehrman’s theology and leads directly to his eventual strident opposition to Christianity. He began his doubts with reference to traditional belief with a simple question over manuscripts â€“ we do not have the manuscripts written by the Apostles, so how do we know we have good copies? And yet he finishes his life in the faith full circle: he opposes his earlier fundamentalist faith with an equal measure of fundamentalist zeal and rigor in opposing the faith.
In launching his program of criticism Ehrman approaches the issues as if his views are standard academic fare, rather than as quite pointed argumentative tools in the hands of a firmly committed religious skeptic. In writing against him the authors aim to present the other side of the scholarly conversation to those who are listening to Ehrman’s story and his arguments.
Is God Immoral Because He Allows Suffering?
The authors begin addressing this group of objections revolving around evil from various places in Ehrman’s writings by questioning his expertise: he is a renowned scholar of the NT and especially NT manuscripts, but he is not a theologian or a philosopher.
The first of Ehrman’s objections to be considered is a statement of the problem of evil: It is a contradiction to say that God is sovereign and good at the same time with so much evil in the world. The first problem the authors find is that it is not clear how Ehrman is grounding his morality. In other words, to call out God for allowing evil and to be angered by such evil and to urge other people to help eliminate suffering and evil obviously assumes right and wrong, good and bad. Where does Ehrman get those categories within his worldview? And why would evil and suffering not just be part of the evolutionary process for Ehrman? Calling something “evil” is a moral judgment, not an empirical one. How would I go about judging the values which inform that moral judgment? How could I make claims about what exists or doesn’t exist–in this case, God â€“ from what amounts to my own moral judgment?
What is most striking is that most philosophers, including those who identify as atheists, do not accept that there is even broad logical contradiction between the existence of God and the presence of evil as such. And yet Ehrman’s coverage of the issue does not touch on this body of literature in his book God’s Problem.
Ehrman’s next contention is this: The Bible contains many answers to the problem of evil stated above, yet many of these contradict each other. After listing Ehrman’s rendering of the Bible’s answers to the problem, the authors wonder where the contradiction is. They note Ehrman’s quickness to find contradictions in other areas. He must assume that each biblical author is meaning to give an exhaustive definition of the problem of evil. The authors of this book conclude, based on the lack of explanation in Ehrman regarding the supposed contradiction, that Ehrman simply does not like the Bible’s explanations.
Which leads to the next issue: The Bible’s explanations for suffering and evil are not satisfying. Ehrman concedes that there are biblical answers (as mentioned above), but they fail to solve the problem. This is mainly because Ehrman assumes each one is meant to apply to every situation, and so he mocks the results. If suffering is said to result from sin, then doesn’t that lead to absurd conclusions? If I have a good, pain-free day, am I more righteous than my friend who lost his job? But of course, this view of suffering is exactly the object of criticism taken up in the book of Job. Ehrman has disconnected one explanation for (especially Israel’s national) suffering from the “multifaceted biblical explanation.” What’s more, as Alister McGrath points out, it is a sign of maturity to be able to critically reflect on, and yet live with unresolved facets of, a problem relating to human limitations. Ehrman resorts to a fundamentalist’s craving for “pat answers.” And yet after he criticizes Christianity for using “mystery” in its explanation, he cannot provide one either and lands in the same place.
Striking as well is Ehrman’s failure to note the role of the Incarnation in discussions of suffering and evil. While God’s entrance into the world in Jesus Christ does not solve the theoretical or logical problem of evil, it provides perhaps the most powerful resources for the existential problem of evil. God is not detached from the terror of life but exerts the greatest energy in participating in and eliminating it on the cross.
The authors see one more controlling idea in Ehrman’s discussions of evil and suffering: “The God of the Bible is immoral. Therefore, he cannot exist.” Again, this assumes an “extra-natural (or supernatural) standard by which to make your judgment.” It gives cultural sensibilities the final say in whether Christianity can stand: whether suffering, hell, punishment, mercy, etc. are acceptable to a person depends largely on his/her culturally inherited values. Ehrman fails to engage the Christian worldview on its own terms and so falters. He tries to force it into conformity with his own values and finds it lacking. For Ehrman, evil is evil insofar as it hurts another person. The Bible puts evil down in the first place to offending a holy God, and also to hurting people for no legitimate reason.
Ultimately, Ehrman’s intuition that the world is not the way it should be points to something deeply intertwined with the Christian position: God will make a new heaven and new earth and wipe every tear from every eye. He will make the world right in spite of human evil.
Is the Bible Full of Irrevocable Contradictions?
As we have seen already, Ehrman biases the issue of “contradiction” from the start by claiming to represent the mainstream. He often delivers a conclusion seemingly devastating to the Christian faith and then lets the reader in on the fact that the whole academic establishment agrees with him. As Michael Kruger points out, this is done at the expense of the top ten seminaries in the country by student body, which are all evangelical. Ehrman stacks the deck by deciding what counts as mainstream. The authors liken this type of reasoning to a statement such as: “Everyone in the government, except for conservatives or Republicans, wants to raise taxes.” It may be an accurate statement, but it can only be such by cutting out half of “everyone.” This is what Ehrman does when he defines “scholars” as those on his side from the outset.
One major thesis which Ehrman assumes in his work on the NT is that NT authors have contradictory points of view on major issues. He starts with the rather unobjectionable perspective that we must let each of the twenty-seven authors speak on his own terms. He then goes on to see these different perspectives and emphases as contradictory insofar as they are not literally identical. The authors, however, see the relationship more like that of a spouse stepping in to finish the story of his partner. He does not necessarily think the accounts will disagree, rather, that his own will fill in details which the audience would like to hear. So too with varying accounts in the NT. The authors look at several examples of this difference in perspective in the Gospels and find nothing that is strictly incompatible, which Ehrman would need for his argument to hold. Ehrman has rushed to judgment.
And yet there is another thorn in the Christian’s side at this point according to Ehrman. Harmonizing apparently contradictory biblical accounts results in yet another account, one that is different from the ones being analyzed in the first place. Take for instance the passage which started Ehrman on his path away from the faith, Mark 2:26. Of the three synoptic Gospels, Mark is the only one to mention the name of the high priest referred to in 1 Samuel 21 in the episode with David providing his men with consecrated bread. 1 Samuel says his name was Ahimelech, Mark says it’s Abiathar. Which is it? Ehrman reasons that Mark made a mistake, which in turn puts inspiration into serious doubt. The authors reason that, instead, we might regard “the time when Abiathar was the high priest” a bit like we regard “the Eisenhower era.” He wasn’t inaugurated until 1953, but the 1950’s as a whole bear the aura of a certain post-war ease and prosperity in our understanding which is associated with his tenure in office. “The Eisenhower years” typify this period even if we happen to be referring to a year before his presidency. So too with Abiathar. He was the stand-out figure of the time for having been the sole survivor of Saul’s slaughter of the priests in 1 Samuel 22. Mark was then referring to what his audience would have recognized. This is an example of a rational argument which attempts to make sense of two streams of data. Ehrman’s rush to rule out any attempt at harmonization flies in the face of what historians do: bring together and make sense of scattered data.
Finally the authors delve into a topic in Ehrman’s work which has shifted around considerably over the years. He now reasons that the diversity of views in the NT indicates that Jesus was not originally considered to be God in any sense. Keep in mind that as of 2004, Ehrman wrote against the popular book The Da Vinci Code by citing Philippians’ and some Gospels’ recognition of Jesus as “equal with God” and “divine.” In 2009 John’s late Gospel was supposed to be the only witness to this belief; and now in 2014, Jesus was not regarded as God “in any sense at all” in the first century.
The main problem with regard to his view of early Christology is that Ehrman engages very little with the arguments of those on the other side of the issue. The major scholars on the topic of early Christology â€“ Richard Bauckham and Larry Hurtado â€“ are either not mentioned or cited incorrectly by Ehrman.
Overarching the points above, as is the case in so many instances in Ehrman’s work, again, is his fundamentalism. He has gone from being a fundamentalist apologist to being a kind of fundamentalist anti-apologist. He is overly skeptical â€“ since certainty and doubt are the two polls of fundamentalism â€“ often seeing the presence of only one witness of an event as evidence against that event’s veracity. Because ancient parallels to early Christian belief and practice are so numerous, Ehrman makes free use of them to make quite strong points. He reasons from the veneration of intermediary figures in the ancient world that the honor shown to Jesus is no more than such veneration. Yet again, Hurtado has shown that there was a sharp difference between that and the worship of the one God. The patterns surrounding Jesus align with the latter.
The chapter ends with a quotation from N. T. Wright to the effect that there is a large difference between a hermeneutic (or, philosophy of interpretation) of suspicion and a hermeneutic of paranoia. He believes many NT scholars have become trapped in the latter, a kind of obsession with their own subtleties in smoking out the true reality behind a text. The authors see Ehrman in this camp, too suspicious to assess the evidence on its own terms.
Are the Biblical Manuscripts Corrupt?
The authors next address the topic of ancient biblical manuscripts, the specific area of Professor Ehrman’s expertise. One of the first objections which comes up in a discussion on manuscripts relates to the autographs, or the manuscripts which the original authors physically wrote. Ehrman argues that since we don’t have those and we only have copies of copies, we have no idea what the original manuscripts said. Of course, this relates to the question hinted at above: how much evidence is enough? We have an enormous number of copies of very ancient pedigree. The likelihood of their being corrupted to anything like an unrecognizable degree is hard to imagine. And yet this is Ehrman’s assumption: since we can’t know for sure without the autographs whether our ancient pieces of papyrus match up perfectly, we have to assume huge discontinuity between the two. This immediately points up the philosophical problem. It is not a matter purely of knowledge and expertise, but of outlook and judgment.
Take for instance some of the statistics: we have three manuscripts of Tacitus, one of The History of Rome by Velleius Paterculus, and a stunning fifty manuscripts of Josephus’ The Jewish War. How many NT manuscripts do we have? 5,800. What’s more is that the quotations of the NT in early Christian writers are innumerable; by Metzger’s and Ehrman’s own analysis, they would be enough to reconstruct the whole New Testament. Another fact to consider is that the NT has the smallest gap of any ancient work between the originals and the copies in our possession. Statistics on the gaps (between autographs and our copies): Tacitus, 800 years; Josephus, 900 years; etc. Our earliest NT manuscript was copied about thirty-five years after the completion of the NT and we have many more 100-200 years later. If we have any problem with so many manuscripts it is not that we have lost the essence of the NT. It is more likely that “we may have 105 percent of the text, not that we have lost some of it.”
Next the authors move to Ehrman’s work within the content of our NT manuscripts. A rather sensationalist claim of Ehrman’s is that there are more variants than there are words in the entire NT. This is misleading on several counts. For one thing, far and away most of these are copying errors related to spelling, word order, re-copying a line, changes in articles, etc. Additionally, Ehrman’s problem with the textual variants only arises because of the wealth of manuscripts in our possession. NT study is vastly more advanced when compared with classical literature, for example, because of this abundance of evidence. With this abundance, however, comes the potential for small variations.
Finally, Ehrman claims that orthodox scribes changed Scripture at a very high doctrinal level, and so we cannot know for certain whether such has occurred in the transmission of our NT text. The authors counter that we are able to identify the original wording by surveying the broad range of textual evidence. Furthermore, “core doctrine is so distributed across these texts that the overall theological content is not impacted by these contested texts.”
Were There Many Christianities?
Bart Ehrman’s writing on early Christianity often focuses on those forms of faith which were lost as what we consider “orthodoxy” came into power. As a political action, movements of faith and life which had been considered acceptable were counted as heresy, or at least sidelined, in favor of the victors’ opinions on Jesus and the Bible especially. Ehrman makes programmatic use of Walter Bauer’s book Heresy and Orthodoxy in Earliest Christianity.
The authors combat this approach on several fronts. To begin, Bauer’s early book has been widely discredited by historians. Bauer’s work reads phenomena from the second century and later back onto the first century while ignoring the earliest material we have: the NT itself. Moreover, Ehrman’s contention that these earlier forms of Christianity were blotted out, such that we don’t know anything about them, is an argument from silence. We simply cannot know that. The early movements we do know about are often skeptical about all things Jewish, and so it seems impossible that they could have coincided with the earliest form of the faith which was undoubtedly a Jewish movement.
Along these same lines, Ehrman also displays remarkable cynicism about the ability of the powerful to create reality and silence minority voices. Since orthodoxy is “the winner,” its version is surely suspect since the winners chose the canon. However, there was no “winner” â€“ no powerful Christian group at all â€“ until the fourth century; the books of the “orthodox” Bible and many prominent doctrines were in full use before this watershed of councils and canonical lists.
There is a similarly suspicious attitude toward early church leaders. Ehrman sees them as innovators creating orthodoxy. However, as a sympathetic reading bears out, second- and third-century writers are far more concerned with preserving and passing on teaching than in instituting new policy. They had a rule of faith and they held themselves to the teaching of the Old Testament, something fringe groups failed to do resulting in pronounced theological novelty.
The related topics of canon and orthodoxy likewise fall on Ehrman’s radar as novel creations of fourth-century councils. Of course, in defining orthodoxy by that fourth-century statement, Ehrman reasons in a circular fashion: if that’s the definition, then of course orthodoxy is a fourth-century invention. There was an agreed-upon teaching regarding the core message of the faith which constituted orthodoxy long before that, however. Likewise with canon: The concept goes back to the OT in God’s covenant with his people that resulted in a canon of covenant documents. The NT church obviously viewed their situation as quite similar.
Are Many New Testament Documents Forged?
The authors introduce the latest of Ehrman’s projects, the supposed forgery of NT books, by pitting Ehrman against himself. In two quotations from the NT scholar seemingly at odds, the authors show how several options present themselves with such a dilemma. Perhaps the writer’s opinion has evolved in a way that is not inconsistent with his earlier statements; perhaps he is at odds with himself debating out both sides; perhaps a reader far in the future would realize that he is too far from the author’s own time and place to know how to integrate the many parts involved in a complex opinion; maybe it is just a contradiction because of a change in viewpoint. To claim that one of the statements has been forged is another thing entirely, requiring a fair amount of evidence. This last step, the most extreme conclusion one can reach, is what Ehrman does with much of the NT. Instead of raising the heretical and/or apocryphal NT documents up to canonical status â€“ a less than historically responsible thing to do â€“ Ehrman lowers the canonical books by claiming later writers wrote in the name of earlier renowned figures. He bases this in large part on the disciples’ illiteracy.
The authors respond by looking to the ascription tradition of the early church: it seems likely that the tradition knew something of the authorship of various books given their high esteem of the apostolic circle. Hebrews is an interesting case study since its authorship was disputed: that this was a real issue for the church indicates their attention to the importance of who put pen to paper.
With regard to the apostles’ being illiterate, it is important to point out that education was more important for Jews at that time than for many in the ancient world. Also Peter was able to lead a vast multicultural religious movement which does, after all, point to some degree of cunning; this as opposed to Ehrman’s characterization of the man as “a backwoods peasant.” There is also explicit mention of the use of secretaries in the NT, a feature which may have been even more widespread than we have evidence to believe: the possibility at this point ought to outweigh the forgery theory.
All in all, the authors present their position against Ehrman using the argumentative tools of theologians from the Christian position. They end with a discussion of the centrality of the resurrection for Christian belief and the reasons to believe in that resurrection. Belief is not the simple result of arguments, but arguments do marshall together our sense of the reality about which we are believing. Without the faithful delivery of the NT documents which teach of the Messiah, there would have been no early Christian movement nor would there be Christians today.
Copyright 2014, Books At a Glance
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