Ehrman book review now on René Salm’s website

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by Neil Godfrey

Misquoting Jesus
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In anticipation of the imminent publication of Bart D. Ehrman’s “Did Jesus Exist?” (March 20, 2012) I’ve added to my website a book review (well, it’s really a chapter review) of his “Misquoting Jesus” (2005). It’s at http://www.renesalm.com/mp/ehrman_mj.html

Ehrman’s style is pretty uniform across his two dozen or so books which seek to reach the educated layperson. In quest of this goal (which sells books) Ehrman dumbs down the argument so much that I argue he loses his compass–categories overlap and a dangerous imprecision takes over which permits that the most immodest claims of the tradition hold the floor. Ehrman happens to be a scholar who is good at detail and terrible at generalities. He needs to be called out. Mythicists need to show that the context of Ehrman’s thought is totally bogus.

At bottom Ehrman’s a defender of the tradition. He’ll lean on assumption, speculation, and illogic–the very antitheses of good historical method–when the chips are down and when it comes to placing his (sometimes carefully researched) specifics in context.

As far as I’m concerned Ehrman has sold out. He’s now primarily a seller of books. I’d be happy to be proven wrong, because he has/had all the equipment to be a fine historian. But the origins of Christianity are complex. One can simplify only so much before the argument becomes very wrong. And Ehrman is very wrong.


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17 thoughts on “Ehrman book review now on René Salm’s website”

  1. Which René Salm are we talking about here?

    Is it René Salm, internationally renowned historian with impeccable qualifications in the relevant field, decades of academic experience and a mountain of credibility?

    Or is it René Salm, amateur atheist blogger, mythicist and conspiracy theorist with no qualifications in any relevant field, who believes the film ‘Agora’ was a scrupulously accurate tour de force of historical reconstruction?

    I think we know the answer!

  2. From the review:

    “Lest we are in any doubt on whose side Ehrman’s heart resides, in Misquoting Jesus he emphasizes that those ancient scribes who changed words to conform with orthodoxy were “good” people (p. 175). Some readers may appreciate this, but judging character is the province of the prophet, not the historian”

    This is poor reviewing. Ehrman never said anything close to such a value-judgment. He said those who separated Jesus from Christ were seen as AntiChrist. Period. This is the sort of thing Christians do all the time. Reading things into scripture which are not there. I’m not saying the reviewer is Christian, just that this is not helpful.

    Why is this 7 year old book being reviewed NOW?

    1. Ehrman never says anything close to such a value-judgement? Ehrman writes on page 175:

      [S]cribes occasionally altered their texts to make them say what they were already believed to mean.

      This is not necessarily a bad thing, since we can probably assume that most scribes who changed their texts often did so either semiconsciously or with good intent.

      That sounds to me pretty close to Rene Salm’s assessment.

      1. When Ehrman writes “[S]cribes occasionally altered their texts to make them say what they were already believed to mean” he is engaging in casuistry. He has just demonstrated (and effectively, too) how this precisely was NOT the case: scribes altered their texts to “attack” those with whom they disagreed (e.g., p. 174 bottom). His statement SHOULD read (and this I penciled in): “[S]cribes occasionally altered their texts to make them say what they wanted them to say.” This statement now conforms with Ehrman’s argument.–RS

  3. Ehrman wrote two controversial books. One is about the changes in texts. In many cases, the changes were done “semiconsciously or with good intent” (good is subjective of course). But in other cases, he alleges that editors made changes to alter the meaning of texts (to make them anti-women, for example). He also alleged in another book that the authors of many of the epistles misrepresented themselves on purpose so they would have authority to say things that would otherwise have been ignored. Is that good?

    Both of his books have been furiously attacked by the orthodox. Defender of tradition loathe him, and the main reason they dismiss his scholarship is that they say his only purpose is to upset tradition.

    And if ad hominen is a bad thing, why say: “Ehrman has sold out. He’s now primarily a seller of books.”

    1. Why would defenders of the tradition even bother with him? Isn’t scholarship supposed to be about a critical study of the issues from rationalist and secular perspectives? Why should the faithful even bother with such scholarship enough to become offended at all?

      The idea of believers being offended or upset over scholarship worries me. It indicates we are still in the ages of book-burning mentalities. Does not the Bible teach that the spiritual will be filled with a great peace that surpasses wordly offences? The reason I liked Catholics so much when I was younger was because they were so cool about their faith — knowing they were right enabled them to be much more relaxed and unperturbed by other ideas.

      As for your ad hominem remark, I don’t follow. I am sure you are not justifying the original commenter’s sarcasm and insult alongside Salm’s clear argument and addressing of the logic and facts.

  4. Sorry Neil, but I am unimpressed with this review. Ehrman wrote an entire book on the issue of the diversity in early Christianity called Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew. For purposes of Misquoting Jesus,however, there was no reason for Ehrman to give anything more than brief overview of the topic so that his readers could understand the theological significance of the changes that scribes made. Simplification on the issue of diversity was appropriate.

  5. For the record I took Bart Ehrman’s clear “apology” for the scribes who changed the scriptures as something of a sop to mollify offended believers. “You can see I am pointing to the evidence that scribes changed what they found, but hey, don’t be upset, I’m not saying they were bad people for doing that, they were pious and sincere just like you, only they lived in a different world from us.”

    As it turns out that’s not enough to mollify the offended believers.

    As for the matter of “simplification”, one can simplify in a way that is consistent with the arguments and evidence one presents, or one can “simplify” for the benefit of trying to not offend a potential readership.

  6. I don’t see it as an attempt to mollify as much as an attempt to sidestep an irrelevant tangent. I suspect that Ehrman knew that his critics would claim that he was accusing the scribes of dishonesty and that he couldn’t prove that they were. However, his thesis doesn’t depend on or require a determination of whether the scribes who made the changes were good people or bad people. I think Ehrman’s point is that we don’t need to make a negative value judgment about the scribes in order to understand what happened and he doesn’t want to get into the question. I suspect Ehrman knew that his statement wasn’t going to mollify offended believers, but it does keep the discussion where he wants it. I think that is quite consistent with the arguments and evidence he was presenting.

  7. I should say that I am a big fan of Ehrman. Although I don’t agree with every conclusion he reaches, I think he does an excellent job in fairly laying out the evidence upon which his conclusions are based so that his readers are in a position to judge the persuasiveness of his case. It was his work that first showed me how problematic the sources for the historical Jesus are.

    In every book he has written, Ehrman has offended Bible believers by attempting to educate them. That he has not chosen to poke a stick into every hornets’ nest that I might like to see poked does not make him a sell out in my mind.

    1. I like Dr. Ehrman, too, and I wouldn’t use the term sell-out. That seems a bit strong. However, you’ll have to admit he’s definitely found his comfort zone.

      There once was a time when Bart could write a paper like “Cephas and Peter” (JBL, Vol. 109, No. 3, pp. 463-474, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3267052), in which he concludes that we should seriously consider the theory that they were two different people. He wrote, “When Paul mentions Cephas, he apparently does not mean Simon Peter, the disciple of Jesus.” If you have a chance, I highly recommend you read this article, as well as the smack-down from Dale Allison, “Peter and Cephas: One and the Same” (JBL, Vol. 111, No 3., pp. 489-495, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3267263).

      Perhaps I’ve read too much into it, but it always seemed to me that Ehrman by nature would like to do more radical stuff, real higher criticism. However, he had to learn the hard way where the acceptable boundaries are. I mean, look at the implications Ehrman cites when wrapping up his conclusion. What would it mean if Cephas and Peter are not the same guy?

      (1) Paul would not have gone to Jerusalem, three years after his “conversion”( Gal 2:18-20), in order to learn more about the life of Jesus from one of his closest disciples, Peter. Instead, he would have gone to confer with Cephas, a leader of the Jerusalem church, perhaps concerning missionary strategy.

      (2) Peter may not have even been present at the Jerusalem Conference in which Paul’s Gentile mission was approved and sanctioned (Gal 2:1-10).

      (3) No longer would we know if Peter was accompanied by his wife on his missionary journeys (1 Cor 9:5), nor whether he visited Corinth.

      (4) The confrontation at Antioch (Gal 2:11-14) would not have been between Peter and Paul, that is, between Jesus’ closest disciple and his most avid apostle. It would have been between a Jerusalem and a Pauline form of Christianity, pure and simple.

      (5) Finally, there would remain no NT evidence of Peter’s presence in Antioch, where tradition ascribes to him the first bishopric. (p. 474)

      Compare this to the Sunday-school-safe stuff he wrote in Peter, Paul, and Mary Magdalene. It reminds me of that joke Bill Hicks told about a U.S. president winning the election and . . .


      Agendas change. Comfort zones change.

  8. Tim,

    Last summer I dropped in on my high school religious education teacher only to find that he had become an atheist in his early eighties. I remembered him as a devout Catholic and one of the most active men in the parish in which I grew up, but he had become disgusted with the clergy as a result of the sexual abuse scandals. Then he listened to Ehrman’s lecture series From Jesus to Constantine: A History of Early Christianity and he realized that the Catholic Church had been feeding him a line of bullshit for his entire life. I had always respected the way he lived out his beliefs, but I really admired the intellectual integrity it took to abandon those beliefs when they could no longer withstand scrutiny.

    I too suspect that Ehrman has more radical ideas than he usually lets on, but I think that his popular works are nonetheless valuable and important. I think he enjoys teaching and I suspect that he finds it rewarding to open the eyes of lay people to truths about the history of early Christianity which their priests and ministers have worked so hard to conceal. I also suspect that it is rewarding in ways that arguing with other academics is not.

    I hope to read Ehrman’s article on Peter and Cephas someday and I do agree that it is fascinating to think about the implications of the names referring to different people. Nevertheless, I am doubtful that our sources could ever be sufficient to make that hypothesis much more than an intriguing possibility. One of the themes that Ehrman hammers at constantly is that a historian cannot go any farther than his sources will allow. If Ehrman chooses not to pursue more radical scholarship, perhaps it is because he knows how speculative such work can be.

    I suppose that it is possible that Ehrman is just following the path of least resistance by knuckling under or selling out, but I would have to see someone make a much more convincing case than I have seen so far before I would cease to give him the benefit of the doubt. Most of the complaints I see strike me as being on the petty side.

    1. Many of the complaints about Ehrman I read on the web are from disgruntled, offended Evangelicals. They think Bart gave up Christianity because he found discrepancies in the text. However, he’s always been very clear that the real reason he became a self-professed agnostic is “God’s Problem” — why is there so much evil and suffering in the world? I respect that.

      I also respect the way he’s taken a lot of what we history geeks have known for some time and made it accessible to the public. This effort is to be lauded, as it “moves the frame” of the discussion.

      Finally, as I’ve said before, Ehrman is a worthy successor to Metzger, and that’s high praise. But recall that textual criticism has been (at least in my experience) a haven for conservative scholarship. It’s less distressing to spend your day trying to “get back to the original text” than to spar with the likes of Bultmann.

      Vinny: “One of the themes that Ehrman hammers at constantly is that a historian cannot go any farther than his sources will allow.”

      I think I need respond to this bold statement with an entire post of its own.

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