Bart D. Ehrman. The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings. 5th ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012. Reviewer: Scott J. Shifferd
Bart Ehrman provides the perspective for critical scholarship of the New Testament. While these beliefs are threatening to those struggling with their faith, Ehrman’s textbook is valuable for Christians, because the text informs the believer of how a critical scholar and an academic agnostic would approach the Bible. Every student can grasp the critical viewpoints that Ehrman communicates in his textbook.
A Critical Scholar’s Bible
Ehrman’s textbook exposes students to hypercritical scholarship that exclude a probable harmonies among the New Testament Scriptures. However, such critical scholars admit much for which they leave much more unanswered. Ehrman recognized that the first Christians had a precedent for Scripture because of Judaism (10). Ehrman noted that 1 Timothy 5:18 mentioned Luke’s Gospel and that 2 Peter 3:16 referred to Paul’s writings as “Scripture.” Ehrman revealed that critical scholars can see that early Christian communities accepted apostolic writings as Scripture when written (10).
Ehrman also presented an agnostic’s Bible including the Gospels, Acts, and some of Paul’s writings (Rom–Gal), John’s epistle, and Peter’s epistle. Ehrman reports that humanity does not possess the original New Testament but copies upon copies of manuscripts. He reported that there are about 5,700 manuscripts of the New Testament. While communities have maintained the texts in pristine condition from the early second century unto today, Ehrman expressed that there are hundreds of thousands of variants among these numerous copies (20). However, Ehrman avoided recognizing how insignificance of such variants and proceeds through the rest of his textbook where these variants are not relevant to examining the New Testament. Ehrman believed that the oldest manuscripts are the most reliable, and he avoids noting the majority of texts as a reliable witness. He does not consider that later manuscripts may have older, more reliable, and yet undiscovered texts behind them, and thereby, Ehrman does not address the ancestry of textual families as primary sources, and he treats the locale of manuscripts as secondary (26).
A Critical Scholar’s Disharmony of the Gospels
In his textbook, Ehrman presumed that legends grew about Jesus of Nazareth over the time of 30–50 years that altered Jesus’s life and words (30). When addressing the Gospels, Ehrman set these accounts against each other rather than considering a harmony as each Gospel supplementing the previous (237). Ehrman’s perception consists of contradictions among the Gospels (243). Like many, he interprets the Bible against itself which leads to a conclusion of disharmony. Many critical scholars are not open to consider how each Gospel can supplement each other with no considerable discrepancy.
Ehrman has a minimal position of the historical Jesus. Ehrman depicted Jesus as an apocalyptic prophet (272). However, critical scholarship like Ehrman’s position includes recognizing Jesus’s claim as “the Son of Man” from Daniel 7 (269). Daniel 7 depicts the Son of Man receiving an eternal kingdom from the Ancient of Days.
A Critical Scholar’s Presupposition against Miracles
Ehrman described a historian as a prosecuting attorney who presumes charges against the Gospel writers (245). With the Gospel records of Jesus of Nazareth, Ehrman overlooks “innocent until proven guilty.” He relies heavily upon the “criterion of dissimilarity” throughout his text by observing the historical Jesus when Jesus’s words and actions are contrary to Jewish culture and early Christianity. Critical scholars consider these events highly probable via dissimilarity (290). Ehrman agreed with the historical-critical assertion that the historian has no access to the supernatural and the historians must only speak of the natural world (254). Such naturalism overlooks that miracles are rare by definition and yet are probable when allowing God within the historical view. The naturalist viewpoint is the most influential presupposition of the historical-critical approach. Furthermore, Ehrman asserted that today people perceive miracles as impossible (253).
Historians may not presume miracles because such are improbable, but if an phenomenon has witnesses, then the historian is not honest to deny an extraordinary event because of its miraculous implications. Excluding miracles excludes the rational conclusion that God can and will probably act supernaturally or inexplicably upon His Creation. History is based on sources. If primary sources report a phenomenon as a miracle, then historians should report exactly that. The historian can present the account of the supernatural and then allow the audience to consider the probability of the event according to the sources. Contrary to this position and his discourse, Ehrman admitted that someone could possibly do miracles.
A Critical Scholar’s View of the Resurrection
While as a weakness in his agnosticism, Ehrman’s presentation demonstrates a strength for evangelical Christians to address critical scholarship. Secular scholarship approaches Jesus’s death, stops, jumps over the empty tomb accounts, and then continues on the other side where disciples experience Jesus risen from the dead and proclaim Jesus’s resurrection so that the church grows upon this teaching. Ehrman finds that Jesus was buried quickly and that there may not have been an empty tomb (292, 298). In his text “How Jesus Became God,” Ehrman perceived that Jesus’s burial in a tomb was historically improbable. Despite Jesus’s burial in a tomb, Ehrman affirms that Jesus’s closest followers believed that Jesus rose from the dead and that the church began because of a belief in Jesus’s resurrection (297–98). However, Ehrman could have expanded on these experiences.
Ehrman overlooks other historical marks of authenticity. As for historicity, the women as witnesses to the empty tomb match the historical criterion of embarrassment for first-century Jewish men, so that women witnesses are most probable and the best explanation for what Jesus’s disciples experienced (Mark 16:1–8). The account in Mark’s Gospel of the empty tomb is an historical bridge to the first believer’s experiences of Jesus’s resurrection. Therefore, Mark’s account is an early record because the other Gospels expand on these events. Mark’s sources reporting these events date even earlier than Mark. The various details between the Gospels demonstrate various sources and traditions for each community receiving a Gospel, and again these sources date much earliest than the Gospels (Luke 1:1–3). In additional support, any ambiguity that anyone perceives in the Gospels would indicate that these traditions date very early into first-century Christianity. Lastly and most importantly, the Gospel message of Jesus’s death, burial, and resurrection dates as material to AD 54 within Paul’s record in 1 Corinthians 15:1–11. Furthermore, as Ehrman admitted, this Gospel message dates to Paul’s conversion at AD 35–36. This Gospel also dates to the original events and experiences of the apostles Peter and John and Jesus’s brother James circum AD 30 (Gal 1:11–2:10). Both Paul and James were hostile at first and converted via their personal experiences of Jesus’s resurrection.
Overall, Ehrman’s textbook may crush a new Christian’s faith as this textbook is taught throughout secular universities in the United States. However, in the right setting, this is a useful work for presenting the skeptical use of the historical-critical method. Christian evangelists, apologists, and scholars can remain aware of such scholarship and find such positions useful for demonstrating the truth upon the minimal facts that critical scholars admit. Secular historians do admit minimal facts about Jesus’s resurrection including that various groups of people experienced Jesus’s resurrection from the dead, but most critical scholars like Ehrman leave this event unexplained.
Bart D. Ehrman is the James A. Gray Distinguished Professor at the University of North Carolina of Chapel Hill. He works as a part of the faculty in the Department of Religious Studies. Ehrman has an M.Div. and a Ph.D. from Princeton Theological Seminary. His research focuses on early Christianity from Jesus unto Constantine. Ehrman’s research in his first twenty years focused upon textual criticism. His recent research concerns early Christian writings including apocrypha and pseudepigrapha in the second and third century (Ehrman, “Bart D. Ehrman” <http://religion.unc.edu/_people/full-time-faculty/ehrman/>).