Daily Archives: 2014-03-15 18:30:52 GMT+0000

Bart Ehrman’s The Bible: An Undergraduate Textbook

The Bible
The Bible

Oh, I shouldn’t have . . .

I gave myself Bart Ehrman’s new textbook, The Bible: A Historical and Literary Introduction, for Christmas. Here it is March, and I’m finally getting the chance to read it. I expect this overpriced volume has a pretty good chance of becoming the standard text in American undergraduate survey courses on the Bible. So it makes sense to find out what young students will be learning.

When I say young students, I mean the young ones sufficiently well off to be able to live on campus. As education costs here in the U.S. skyrocket, more and more first- and second-year university students are working at night and driving to junior colleges each morning. But this book speaks directly to first-year students living in dormitories. The audience is more likely Footlights College Oxbridge than Scumbag College.

Well done, Footlights! 10 points.

At the end of each chapter, Bart asks the posh kids living in dorms to “Take a Stand” on a few issues. Here’s a typical “Take a Stand” item:

Your roommate has not taken the class, but he is interested in the history of ancient Israel. He knows something (a little bit) about the time of the United Monarchy and asks which king you think was better, David or Solomon. What is your view, and how do you back it up? Give him way more information than he wants to know. (p. 112)

Which king was better? That’s a toughie. But not as tough as the questions on University Challenge.


Fortunately, when reading the core of the text, I can almost forget I’m reading a book targeted more at Lord Snot and Miss Money-Sterling than Mike, Rick, Vyvyan, and Neil. Unfortunately, it’s hard to overlook the mistakes I’ve found already in the early chapters.

I sweat the small stuff

It may seem inconsequential, and maybe things like this shouldn’t bother me. But I can’t help myself. On the spelling of the Hebrew word for God’s name, Ehrman writes:

read more »

Was the Empty Tomb Story Originally Meant to be Understood Literally?

emptytombThis post is about the miracles in what is generally considered the earliest written surviving gospel, the Gospel of Mark.

Dutch pastor and biblical scholar Karel Hanhart in The Open Tomb: A New Approach, Mark’s Passover Haggadah (± 72 C.E.) argues that Mark’s empty tomb story has been sewn together with semantic threads mostly from Isaiah in order to symbolize the fall of Jerusalem and its Temple in 70 CE and the emergence of Christianity as a new force among the gentiles. That is, the story of the burial and resurrection of Jesus was not understood as a literal miracle about a person being buried in a tomb and rising again. The first readers, with memories of the national calamity and Jewish Scriptures fresh in their minds, would have recognized instantly the many allusions in Mark’s closing scene of the empty tomb to the Temple’s fall, the end of the old order as predicted by the Prophets, and the promise of the body of Christ surviving and thriving throughout the nations post 70 CE.

A later or more geographically distant generation for whom the fall of Jerusalem had little personal significance would easily have lost sight of the original meaning of the burial and resurrection miracle and read literally the narrative of Joseph taking Jesus’ corpse from Pilate and placing it in the tomb, his rolling the stone to block the entrance, the women coming to anoint the body, their seeing the young man inside and running off in fear when he tells them to tell Peter where to find Jesus.

I will not in this post engage with Karel Hanhart’s specific arguments identifying the “Old Testament” and historical sources of Mark’s closing scenes. That’s for another time. Here I take a step back and look at the reasons we should read Mark’s miracle stories symbolically rather than literally. Be warned, though. I do not always make it clear where Hanhart’s arguments end and my additions begin. Just take the post as-is. If it’s important to know the difference then just ask.

Form critics long ago categorized the miracle stories into different types: healings, exorcisms, nature miracles. Classification like this has allowed scholars to say some types are historical and others not. We can imagine dramatic healing or exorcism that is largely performed through powerful psychosomatic suggestion. But nature miracles? Walking on water? Nah.

The trouble with this division, as Hanhart points out, is that the Gospel of Mark makes no such distinctions in the way any of the miracles are narrated. The narrative audience response is always the same: fear and astonishment. So let’s ask the question: What was “Mark” doing? Was he expecting his readers to take the miracles — all of them — literally or symbolically?

And if we answer, “Symbolically”, then surely we should include the final miracle — the empty tomb story — in that answer, too.

None of the Synoptic evangelists made such a distinction [healing miracles, nature miracles, . . .]. And Mark placed the open tomb story on the same literal or symbolic plateau, or both, as the stilling of the storm and the transfiguration. The audience response was the same in each case, one of awe and fear (4:41; 16:8). (p. 5)

And if we answer symbolically, we need to explain what message Mark was trying to convey.

Hanhart points to the following reasons Mark gives readers to enable them to understand that he is not writing a literal history. read more »