Bart Ehrman’s Motive

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by Neil Godfrey

Someone emailed me part of a recent post by Bart Ehrman with a suggestion that I comment. The key paragraph by Ehrman:

I am not saying I have no agendas and no biases. Let me be emphatic. I DO have an agenda and I DO have biases. My agenda is to propagate a scholarly understanding and appreciation of the Bible. And my bias is that a scholarly understanding can NOT be determined by theological dogmas. Scholarship may affect what you choose to believe, theologically. But what you choose to believe, theologically, should not determine the results of your scholarship. That’s my very strong bias. Your historical or literary views should not be pre-determined by your religious beliefs.

I have no doubt that Ehrman’s words are sincere and I believe him. I would suggest, though, that there is something unstated but implied in his words that he also believes and that is part of his professional agenda. His fourth sentence could be rewritten as

My agenda is to propagate a scholarly understanding and appreciation of the Bible — meaning that I wish to propagate a respect for the fundamental methods and assumptions of the mainstream institutional critical scholarly study of the Bible. 

The reason I believe the added words are implied in Ehrman’s statement is that he does not afford the same respect for the declaration of the motives of those who question the most fundamental assumptions from which critical biblical studies operates.

I should add that there is nothing wrong with wishing to propagate respect for one’s standard methods and assumptions, but respect is professionally attained with one allows them to be addressed in open critical inquiry without resort to personal attacks and character denigration. We have a right to expect scholars in fields most clearly associated with ideologies — the arts and humanities, and theology — would be the more humble with the realization of how entrenched ideologies have unwittingly led their fields into unscholarly agendas in the past.

(It would be unfair for anyone opposed to critical scholarship of the Bible to latch on to an extreme or ignorant remark by a fundamentalist critic who was also opposed to some point made by serious scholars in order to add ammunition to his critical case. Yet we find some biblical scholars, including Ehrman, pointing to some of the more nonsensical claims of some few outlier mythicists and painting the entire mythicist enterprise with that brush.)

We return once more the unscholarly treatment of critical scholars  (how much worse are those outside the fold treated) who question the foundations of a project:



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15 thoughts on “Bart Ehrman’s Motive”

  1. OP: “Your historical or literary views should not be pre-determined by your religious beliefs.”

    Per Ehrman (28 May 2017). “Would I Be Personally Devastated if the Mythicists Were Right?…“. The Bart Ehrman Blog. “For my mailbag this week I dug into one from the past — almost exactly five years ago. [c. 2012]”

    When I started my serious study of the New Testament . . . I had a view of Jesus very much like the one most conservative evangelicals have:
      • Jesus was a miracle-working son of God who came to earth principally to die for sins.

    My historical studies eventually changed my views of Jesus. I think every historian should be willing to change his views based on his study of the evidence.
      • Scholars who do not change their views – but come out of a study with the same views they brought into it – are highly suspect.
    Would I be traumatized if the mythicists were right after all?
      • Not in the least. I would probably feel energized.

  2. OP: “respect is professionally attained with one allows them to be addressed in open critical inquiry without resort to personal attacks and character denigration.”

    • I would also add: “or misrepresenting the arguments of others.”

    McGrath (17 February 2015). “Where The Ball Is”. Religion Prof: The Blog of James F. McGrath.

    [Carrier] probably knows better, but is hoping nonetheless to dupe a gullible public that may not.

    [Later comment by ncovington89—17&18 February 2015:] Right. Carrier is probably just like Satan, out to lure as many people away from the truth as possible. How would you feel if someone spoke about you that way? It’s comments like these that strengthen my belief that we cannot trust you or other New Testament scholars, to even try to look at the data objectively. Your words there are the words of a creationist who thinks all those evilutionists are just tricking people into thinking we evolved. In other words, it’s hysteria, not calm and rational consideration of other ideas.
    The bit about Satan was a piece of sarcasm intended to make you realize just how paranoid and vilifying you are of the opposition. With the “ball in your court” quote that you mention, Carrier says (I think on the very same page) that he has not written to end a debate, but to begin one. In other words, he wants his position to be examined by others, and confirmed or refuted. Unless and until that happens, what should the non-scholarly bystander do? He doesn’t answer this, but my own view is that I am well warranted in rejecting the consensus view when the defenses of it that I have seen (from yourself and Ehrman) are terribly inadequate. Because that type of thing causes me to think there isn’t much to be said for historicism, if the experts who defend it aren’t capable of making a decent case.

    Incidentally, I hold the same standard towards creationism: I would have been willing to accept it if the consensus didn’t have good arguments in favor of the alternative. Having done the research, I can say that the experts have excellent reasons for accepting evolution, and most people who have bothered to look into the issue agree.

    [Later comment by James F. McGrath—19 February 2015:] You do know that those who object to evolution say exactly the same thing, don’t you? That they say that if the case for the mainstream view were not so weak, they wouldn’t embrace the criticisms from the fringe?

    If you think the mainstream scholarly view in any area is weak and unjustified, I think it is always safe to say that you haven’t understood it. In some exceptional case, you might be a genius who, without expertise, can see what experts do not. But in such an instance the onus remains on you to demonstrate that, because there are more kooky fringe crackpots who criticize a field from outside than there are geniuses, as far as anyone can tell.

    1. Completely untrue that mainstream scholarly views are always strong and justified. It is a rare INSIDER in any discipline who does not know very well some weaknesses of their own discipline’s assumptions. At least every “A” league scholar in any disciple does. “B” league scholars follow leaders, but “A” league scholars have the expertise to know for themselves where strengths and weaknesses are. The problem is that OUTSIDERS often do not understand, and then mock what they do not understand.

      Outsiders–whether outsiders to biological sciences who condemn evolution or non-climate scientists who are certain that global warming is a hoax, or whatever–typically are unable to accurately represent the reasoning and analysis that goes into WHY a given mainstream view became regnant and why expert opinion in a field is convinced it is justifiably so, prior to criticizing it and presenting arguments for a proposed better theory.

      Insiders to a discipline understand and can explain the reasons why regnant beliefs x,y,z came to be held and why they remain believed by their colleagues. Insiders are able to characterize and describe those reasons in a way that another insider who believes x,y,z would recognize and agree is fair description. It is more difficult, but not impossible, for an outsider, to do this. Minimally it requires effort, to read and dig and follow up footnotes and seek out informed sources holding opposing views, to get up to speed on internal discussions within a discipline.

      There is a paradox: everyone knows their own field is screwed up in x,y,z ways. (Really!–what insider in a given field does not know certain ways in which their own field is screwed up, or could do better–no matter what field it is?) But when we go outside our field of expertise we tend to trust mainstream experts and we lack insider knowledge of where the weak points are–rather than trust non-mainstream arguments or lone contrarians, in most cases–and very rationally and rightly so, in terms of game theory and maximizing odds of acting on the best information, in cases in which we do not have personal expertise to know better.

  3. “My agenda is to propagate a scholarly understanding and appreciation of the Bible — meaning that I wish to propagate a respect for the fundamental methods and assumptions of the mainstream institutional critical scholarly study of the Bible.”

    Or, in other words, his agenda is to ensure that the material and arguments he has been teaching and publishing for decades remain the unquestioned norm. I get it, his celebrity, career, and reputation are all at stake, and what’s worse is they’re being threatened by people who aren’t even part his his cozy collegiate circles. Call me cynical, but it’s not hard to see his real motives as purely self-preservational/self-serving. Not that I necessarily blame him – it’s got to be terrifying to see your whole life’s work start to unravel. If I were in that position, I’d probably be rationalizing the nature of my true motives in the same way!

    1. • Ehrman’s early contributions will not be forgotten and likely his DJE (2012) and HJBG (2014) will be lampooned far into the future.

      Godfrey, Neil (12 April 2018). “A Well Known Historian Praises Bart Ehrman’s History of Christianity’s Triumph”. Vridar.

      Ehrman has made notable contributions to both scholarship and popular knowledge of early Christianity and its sources. Can I be forgiven, however, for suggesting that some of his most informative and valuable publications (e.g. The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture, Lost Christianities…) are some decades old? His recent work that purported to address memory theory in Jesus studies for a popular audience was Jesus Before the Gospels: How the Earliest Christians Remembered, Changed, and Invented Their Stories of the Savior unfortunately disappointed his peers who are specialists in the current application of memory theory to historical Jesus studies. I am reminded of the ancient historian Michael Grant who wrote more books than he had active years as a classicist. Obviously there has to be a relationship between quantity and quality at some point.

      1. I see Ehrman more as a publicizer or popularizer of biblical scholarship than as a leading light in his own field. (His recent book on memory in Jesus studies indicated no knowledge at all of the leading authors of the theory during the time he was preparing for the book and his presentation of memory theory did the field a serious mis-service in its misrepresentations/outright ignorance; his books on the apocalyptic Jesus and the Jesus mythicists betray not an ounce of awareness of any weakness in the methods he uses and cites as used by others.)

        Even someone who is clearly a leading specialist in one area, as Hurtado with early Christian manuscripts, is all at sea when it comes to addressing historical reconstuctions — as his public correspondence with me showed his inability to separate reader interpretation and source assumptions from the raw data of what is written in a text).

        And McGrath, we know his record all too well.

        But there are those who are very aware of the flaws in their methods and the ultimate circularity of their starting assumptions. I have discussed quite a few of them on this blog.

      2. That’s true. I keep forgetting how good his early books like “Lost Christianities” and “Lost Scriptures” are in light of how he’s now become this rearguard defender of academic orthodoxies. No one can deny his earlier contributions that helped make the general public (myself included) more aware of the murky, complicated history of what came to be know as Christianity and the Bible.

        I guess it’s the way Ehrman seems to have become more interested in defending his theory of Jesus as apocalyptic prophet than in his earlier questioning that I find so odd and baffling. It seems like that’s the part of his legacy he’s become more concerned about, which is why I’m suspicious of his motives.

  4. I would classify Bart Ehrman’s contributions as the “critical reading of the current Western Church’s view of its own history”.

    That is, as an atheist and supporter of the idea of a real Jesus – the person, he is bound to get a level of support from those who are considered mainstream scholars – placing himself in the position of being one of their champions. His support base will be large and therefore that gives him a level of authority, but it may be because he has chosen a line of relative safety that optimises his acceptance that really underpins his bias – and that is not really a criticism, but it can be viewed pessimistically.

    Jesus Mythicists bizarre and sober alike – have taken critical reading and otherwise evidence to another level – a level of forensics in some cases. Christians can tolerate Ehrman, but they hate mythicists. In the case of the former they can still argue for belief to be necessary after it has been verified Jesus existed, but in the case of the latter they are left with no option but to concede a falsehood.

    Ehrman stuck his head out a little to say early Christians were a mix of heterodox ideas competing with each other. I’m however a bit annoyed about the both his method and mythicists in insisting that they should be looking for an average man to locate him in a historical timeline.

    1. Are you telling us that you would prefer Ehrman to be reading the texts naively and looking for a divine Jesus as the true historical one? (How many historical Jesus authors have claimed Jesus was “an average man”?)

  5. But when “the fundamental methods and assumptions of the mainstream institutional critical scholarly study of the Bible” are influenced by Christianity, surely this should give one pause, no?

    1. The first problem is to establish how we define “mainstream institutional critical scholarly study” — do we include seminaries or only universities? And if universities, do we exclude any that are even partially funded by faith-based institutions?

      If the question is “What is the evidence that supports the assertion that the fundamental methods and assumptions of the mainstream institutional critical scholarly study of the Bible are influenced by Christianity?”, then we are led in different directions:

      I find Larry Hurtado’s case for a very early High Christology very strong — yet it supports the fundamentalist belief that Jesus was deemed to be divine from the get-go. But his presentation also supports a mythicist viewpoint — that Jesus began his “life” on earth in the imagination.

      Yet the “gradualist Christology”, that the divinity of Jesus evolved and magnified over time, fits neatly the view that Jesus was an ordinary human who was posthumously elevated to divine status over a long period of time.

      How are we to decide that a thesis can stand independently from ideological interest?

  6. My problem with Ehrman’s statement is that he claims to know exactly what his agenda and bias are, and to be able to spell them out for us. Furthermore, he expects us to accept them at face value. That’s not how we should think about bias and agendas. Bias can be unconscious. Agendas are also somewhat obscure, since they have to do with one’s place in society, history, the course of events, etc.

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