2008-06-06

‘Fabricating Jesus’, ch1. Evans on Bart Ehrman

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by Neil Godfrey

Continuing this little series of posts on some aspects of Evans’ book Fabricating Jesus . . . .

Evans discusses Bart Ehrman’s “faith biography”, as he did for Funk, Robinson and Price, as if this is critical to understanding why scholarship of such people “distorts the gospels”.

It was the study of textual variants — the usual myriad of scribal errors and glosses that are found in handwritten books from antiquity and the Middle Ages — that caused Ehrman to question his faith. . . . Errors in Scripture, thinks Ehrman, mean that the words of Scripture can no longer be viewed as God’s words.

Rather rigid ideas about the verbal inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture underlie Ehrman’s problem . . .

Because for Ehrman the Bible became a human book and therefore no longer could be viewed as God’s words, he lost confidence in it. (pp.26-27)

Craig Evans even quotes a few passages from Bart Ehrman confirming all this. Once again he will argue that Ehrman’s loss of faith is not the result of honest enquiry but “grows out of mistaken expectations of the nature and function of Scripture, mistaken expectations that he was taught as a young, impressionable fundamentalist Christian.” Yes, well, this sort of condescension and avoidance of Ehrmans’ own words has been dealt with enough in my previous posts.

But then Evans proceeds to fly sky high above the issues to a point from where Ehrman’s argument can no longer be seen.

First of all, he says: “I must admit that I am puzzled by all this.” The puzzlement, I suggest, stems from Evans’ denial of what Ehrman is actually trying to argue. Evans says that every student in the Bible learns early that there are many textual variants of the biblical manuscripts, “Yet Bible students are not defecting in droves.”

Evans would be more honest — less supposedly “puzzled” — in his appraisal if he also acknowledged that Ehrman at one time was a faithful believer while knowing full well that there were many textual variants. Obviously it is the interpretation and significance of this fact that is the issue.

To say “he is puzzled” by Ehrman’s position and to speak of it as something, well, “puzzling” (mysterious, incomprehensible, contradictory, nonsensical), is a cheap way of excusing himself from addressing, in a scholarly manner, Ehrman’s scholarly arguments. It is a condescending put-down (again) rather than a reasoned response that explains Ehrman’s position fully and clearly — so that there is no puzzlement — and that then proceeds to dissect and rebut it point by point.

Evans also writes: “I am also puzzled by Ehrman’s line of reasoning. For the sake of argument, let’s suppose that the scribal errors in the Bible manuscripts really do disprove verbal inspiration and inerrancy, so that the Bible really should be viewed as a human book and not as God’s words. Would we lose everything as a result? No. Moderate and liberal Christians have held essentially this view for a century or more.” (pp.27-28 )

Is Evans really saying that its okay to be a “moderate” or “liberal” Christian? But that aside, Evans nowhere explains his statements that the Biblical text can be both in error and God’s word at the same time. That’s a pity because it would have helped the reader understand Evan’s argument. Evans leaves gaps like this in his discussion and one wonders if he is really talking to a closed audience who don’t need or require such explanations.

But Evans does respond with a sermon-like argument nonetheless:

Let me put it this way: What did Peter . . . proclaim following the experience of the resurrection? . . . Peter didn’t stand up and proclaim, “Men of Israel, I have good news; the Bible is verbally inspired and therefore inerrant and, moreover, the Gospels can be harmonized.” Had that been Peter’s message, then Ehrman would have a valid point. (p.28-29)

What Evans is guilty of, of course, is the logical fallacy of the excluded middle, of a false alternative.

Evans’ argument is a sermon (not a reasoned discussion). It is nested in faith and calls on the reader and Ehrman to respond in faith:

The real issue centers on what God accomplished in Jesus of Nazareth. . . . Peter and the rest of the apostles proclaimed the resurrection of Jesus. . . The message that runs throughout the New Testament writings . . . was that God had raised Jesus . . . [It was] not “mistake-free” Scripture.”

Logically what Evans is attempting to persuade the reader to accept is that even if the Bible is not inspired by God, is merely the fallible writings of humanity like any and every other text in the world obviously is, then we still have every reason to believe its theological message, and scholars are deluding themselves if they do not believe this. In fact, they are really only upset because of misleading statements by some Christians and sins of the church. Their scholarly arguments simply don’t count and are inevitably based on a false premise — scholarship — when the true premise is faith.

Evans then discusses some of the biblical contradictions that led to Ehrman’s decline from faith. By this Evans presents a front of scholarly integrity. But listen to his conclusion. After outlining Ehrman’s problem with the biblical contradictions, Evans responds:

I repeat: The truth of the Christian message hinges not on the inerrancy of Scripture or on our ability to harmonize the four Gospels but on the resurrection of Jesus. (p.31)

So there you have Evans’s rebuttal of scholarly doubts. Ignore them! Like Paul, know nothing but Jesus crucified, nope, resurrected!

The strange thing is, later in the book Evans goes on to insist that the Bible should be taken literally as truly the message of God. Don’t let the evidence for its human composition fool you, he seems to be saying. Ignore all that. Just believe its message of the resurrection. But nope — later he will also insist we have to believe in the sayings of Jesus before he was resurrected too, and in all his miracles too. So the resurrection isn’t enough really, despite his proclamation of it as his “rebuttal” to Ehrman.

But he is not really calling on readers to ignore the textual evidence of contradictions. As I have alluded to earlier, he plays word games. He will speak of “technical mistakes”, and “the experience of the resurrection”, and play “let’s suppose for the sake of argument” games, and speak of what Ehrman “took to be errors in Scripture” and of “our ability to harmonize the four Gospels”. Without saying it, Evans leaves the reader with the impression he is really only speaking out of one side of his mouth. His choir on his other side knows what he really means.

With such careful choices of words, Evans can create the appearance that he is completely untroubled by the contradictions in the Bible and the all too obvious signs of human errors and editings throughout it. But his faith makes him comatose to scholarly confrontation. This should not be mistaken for intellectual courage or integrity.

I think Evans really is puzzled by reasoned and evidence-based enquiry and conclusions that do not support his faith. He has to be. Otherwise his faith would crumble. He needs to remain puzzled to maintain the existence of contradictions in his head. He needs to call them “technical mistakes”. And doubts he needs to call “misguided suspicions” — from Satan, I presume. And lost faith is surely a contradiction in terms, so it has to be called “misplaced faith”. Word games and red-herrings and logical fallacies are the necessary tools to service the double binds that need to live together if Faith is to be preserved.

Faith is, after all, placed in the unseen. It can move mountains of visible evidence if it stands in the way. It can cast those mountains into the sea. It can walk on top of a whole sea of questions and doubts as if they never existed, or as if they were only there to feed the monsters of the deep.

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Neil Godfrey

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