Bart Ehrman Debate: Bart Ehrman, Jesus, & The Ehrman Project

Bart D. Ehrman
Bart D. Ehrman | Source

Bart Ehrman Debate & The Ehrman Project

This page will discuss some of Professor Bart Ehrman's beliefs about Jesus and the Bible. Also, I provide full-length videos showing Bart Ehrman debate several important experts. Finally, I will discuss and keep up with the website called "The Ehrman Project", which exists to challenge people to consider scholarly views contrary to Ehrman's. I will update this page regularly, as The Ehrman Project continues to develop its website, and as I continue to dig deeper into the many complex claims of both Ehrman and his detractors.

For my readers who aren't familiar with Bart Ehrman at all: Bart D. Ehrman is a renowned Bible scholar who has written some New York Times bestselling books that debate ideas like Biblical infallibility or inerrancy. These books claim that we have many misconceptions about the historical Jesus, they challenge our views about the early development of Christianity, and they address difficult questions like the question of God and suffering. Ehrman's views are often shocking to the general public, and hated by many evangelicals or fundamentalist Christians who debate his ideas. To such Christians, Ehrman seems to be fighting against some of the most important Christian doctrines. Ehrman himself, however, does not see himself as fighting against Christianity. In a recent lecture of his that I attended, he said that what drives him is the desire to fight against dangerous forms of ignorance.

Debate #1: God and Suffering

Bart Ehrman, Jesus, and The New Testament

I've been avidly reading Bart Ehrman's textbook, The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings, so when the opportunity arose for me to hear Ehrman speak in person, I was thrilled. When I arrived at his lecture, which took place at the University of Tennessee, the auditorium was already full, so I had to sit in an over-flow room and watch the lecture on a projection screen. Bart Ehrman, it seems, is a popular speaker. Needless to say, I was disappointed. As Ehrman got into his lecture, however, I no longer even cared that he was in a different room, and I was watching him on a screen. His presentation was so informative, engaging, and fun to watch, it didn't matter if it was on a screen. I was also pleased to discover that Bart Ehrman has a great sense of humor. For example, he defined a "fundamentalist" as someone with "too little fun, too much damn, and too little mental." (It should be noted that most of his humor is quite a bit more refined than that).

The lecture was entitled Does the New Testament Contain Forgeries? Bart Ehrman's thesis was that many of the books in the New Testament are, in fact, pseudepigraphal. That is, they claim to be written by authors whom they are not actually written by. I found the subject utterly fascinating. A couple of the things that really stuck with me are the following:

  • 1st Peter and 2nd Peter, based on stylistic differences in the Greek, could not have been written by the same person. However, both of these books claim to have been written by none other than the apostle Peter. If both claim to be written by the same man, and yet they are clearly written by two different people, then one of them must have been written by someone who was not the apostle Peter claiming to be the apostle Peter.
  • The book of Hebrews was finally admitted into the New Testament canon because it was thought to have been written by Paul. The current consensus, however, is that Hebrews was not written by Paul. If that is the case, the book of Hebrews was admitted into the canon upon false premises.
  • Many modern scholars think that, of the 13 letters that claim to have been written by Paul, as few as 7 of them actually were. These are Romans, 1st Corinthians, 2nd Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, and Philemon. Most scholars agree that Ephesians and Colossians were written by someone pretending to be Paul, and many think that 2 Thessalonians and several other "Pauline" letters were probably also forgeries in Paul's name.

The reason these things struck me is this: if it is true that either 1st Peter or 2nd Peter must have been forged by someone merely claiming to be Peter, then the New Testament contains forgeries. If the New Testament canon contains forgeries, it can not be the inerrant, infallible word of God, but must rather be a collection of texts written in a human way, by fallible authors, and then compiled into an authoritative canon in a similarly human manner. Also, if only certain books in the New Testament are authentic, it would be of considerable importance to me to know which ones are and which ones are not, so that, as concerns New Testament teachings, I can "hold to the good" and regard with all due skepticism that which is probably not genuine.

This new knowledge would not, however, cause me to devalue the Bible, or to doubt the Christian message, or to stop being a Christian. Personally, I don't think that being a Christian is about believing in the perfection of the Bible, but in the perfect goodness of God revealed through Jesus Christ.

Debate #2

Misquoting Jesus

A few years ago, I read Bart Ehrman's book, Misquoting Jesus, and it certainly changed my life in certain ways. I think this was the first real exposure I'd had to textual criticism, and the experience was jarring. Although I was by no means convinced of Biblical inerrancy before reading Misquoting Jesus, the Bible was (and still is) a major, major part of my life, and I viewed it more or less as the word of God. Misquoting Jesus challenged that perspective. It was a welcome challenge, as I had been slowly leaning towards some of Ehrman's conclusions for some time, and his book sent me conclusively in a new direction. Although I've since lost Misquoting Jesus, I have not lost the impression it left me with: the New Testament as we have it is open to critical investigation, and can, and should be studied in a rational way.

If you're enjoying my writing in this article, please take a moment to look at some of my short poems: click here. This opens in a new window, so you won't lose the article you're currently reading.

The Ehrman Project

There is now a website called The Ehrman Project, which offers bits of debate against Ehrman's views. This website describes its purpose as follows:

"...Bart Ehrman has undeniable influence over students and much of the American public. Yet there are equally qualified scholars who deal with the same issues and come to very different conclusions than Dr. Ehrman. The Ehrman Project is . . . dedicated to engaging the ideas that Dr. Ehrman is famously expounding . . . It is not intended to answer all of Dr. Ehrman's claims nor answer the ones it does completely. Rather it is intended to give small snapshots that will potentially motivate viewers to [do] research..."

The emphasis added above is my own, as it illustrates an important truth about this website. One will be well-advised to take the web-site's own advice by proceeding to research further the topics debated on the site. For example, here is a video posted on the site, which attempts to explain why the Gospel of John seems to give a different day for Christ's crucifixion than the other three gospels do.


The above video presents an extremely simple (and disputable) answer to an incredibly complex debate. It also fails to address other difficulties. For example, if John, like the other gospels, intends to portray Jesus as being crucified after the Sabbath meal had already been eaten, then why did Jesus' Jewish accusers refuse to enter Pilot's judgement hall? The text of John 18:28 says that these Jews didn't want to enter the judgement hall of an "unclean" Gentile at that time, lest they become ritually impure, and thus be rendered unfit to partake of the Sabbath. But if the Sabbath meal had already passed, as the other three gospels indicate, then why would they be worried about this? This makes it seem like John is portraying Jesus to have been crucified before the Sabbath meal, while the other three gospels show Jesus being crucified after the Sabbath meal.

This is of great importance, not only because it would show a contradiction within the Bible, but because if John is right, and Jesus was crucified before the Passover meal was eaten, then he did not himself institute the ritual of communion/Eucharist at the Sabbath meal, as the other gospels indicate. In fact, John altogether leaves out the narrative of Christ establishing the Eucharist.

The video above does not mention a number of good arguments in favor of there being a contradiction between John and the other gospels. If one is to get a better picture of the debate, they must go look for the information elsewhere.

I will be looking at The Ehrman Project often, as it is a relatively new website, to examine more of their videos and see what they add to the website. If I find anything interesting or noteworthy, I'll add it to this page.

Debate #3

Conclusion

In conclusion, the issues that Bart Ehrman debates on are extremely complex and involved, and open to much debate. There are fascinating points to be made on both sides of the issues. I think, however, that Christianity stands to benefit more than it has to lose by embracing many of Ehrman's ideas. To take away the "inerrancy" of the scripture would not be to take away God, or the foundations of a Christian faith. Ultimately, our faith is in Jesus himself, and in God, not in a collection of texts. This faith should be capable of standing regardless of whether the authors of those texts made errors or not.

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Comments 3 comments

Jack hamer 5 years ago

I suggest, Christians read the chapter, "aal e Imraan" in Quran which narrates Jesus life, birth and death then juxtapose it on what is mentioned in bible. Many things may become clear.


Sean 5 years ago

Dear japtaker,

First off, an incredibly interesting read here! Well done on an excellent overview of the somewhat long series of debates. I do have a couple of issues, however, with Ehrman’s logic—or perhaps your interpretation of his logic (which may indeed very well be mostly your logic)—in the first debate. I’d mainly like to spur on a discussion concerning the lecture “Does the New Testament Contain Forgeries?” and some of the arguments there within, talking about your final conclusion afterward.

As a bit of an intro into the issues, my father is a pastor, and after getting him to talk with me briefly about canonization, he mentioned there are 4 general rules taught in seminary when considering canonization (he further intimated to me that these were “for dummy” versions for my attention’s sake):

1. Authorship – In order to satisfy this category you must have been a 1st generation apostle, having walked, talked and lived with Jesus, or in the least, have been someone close to an apostle (such as Peter’s friend, Mark).

2. Universally Acceptance – Essentially, it must have been acknowledged by all major Christian peoples of the ancient world, being widely and publicly read, accepted and practiced throughout the church body.

3. Consistent Nature of Message – This is relatively self-explanatory in that the book had to contain similar theology to other accepted Christian writings as well as display Jesus Christ’s true nature, character and work as divine.

4. Divine Inspiration – From my limited understanding, this meant that the book must have reflected God’s voice as guided by the Holy Spirit through the author; in other words, it must have been what some call “God breathed” authorship.

Now, even given that set of limited criterion (as I’m sure the canonization process was far, far more complicated than that short list gives it credit for) I’d like to look at each summary of Ehrman’s arguments and point out a few of what I believe to be falsities in his logic, concluding by pointing out, within your own argument at the end, new holes that must then be accounted for.

To begin, Ehrman’s objection concerning the controversy over first and second Peter is incredibly viable. Based only upon stylistic differences it would not make sense that Peter would have or could have written both books, while each book clearly maintains that he did. However, I believe Ehrman falls into a False Cause Fallacy here, unduly presupposing that simply because there are stylistic differences Peter could not have been the author of both books, when there are certainly more causes for the differences than that. For example, the collection of Petrine writings is quite small, so it would be difficult to make such a general, objective assumption about his writing style considering our limited knowledge of his actual writing. Also, he could simply have been addressing his readers in a means they could more easily comprehend (just as Paul did when addressing the Athenians in Acts 17:22), or he could have had a secretary-like individual record his message into Greek, as the argument has even been given that a Galilean fisherman could not possibly know Greek at all. All in all, there are other viable and equally likely alternatives that Ehrman could have investigated in reference to the difference in style between the two books.

Next, regarding Hebrews, Ehrman has obvious reason to deny Pauline authorship—in fact, most scholars and theologians agree with him, as do I! However, he attacks the book’s validity based on the assumption that it was canonized only for what initially appeared to be its Pauline-esque writing style, when Pauline authorship was certainly not the only criterion given to support Hebrews as a canonical book (as we have gone over at the beginning) or any other book for that matter, else the New Testament would be very small and one-sided indeed. Firstly, the Ehrman’s argument incurs an interesting form of a deductive fallacy called Denying the Antecedent. His argument is such: “If Hebrews was written by Paul, then its canonization is legitimate. Hebrews was not written by Paul. Therefore, its canonization is not legitimate.” For imagery’s sake, here is a similarly formed and equally false argument: “If Sean is a Canadian Citizen, then he is a human being. Sean is not a Canadian citizen. Therefore, Sean is not a human being.” See the falsity? Furthermore, I may even go so far as saying Ehrman seems to step off the curb into a puddle of the Red Herring Fallacy. Assuming Paul was not the author, and the book of Hebrews was canonized on an illegitimate basis (however unlikely this may be given the abovementioned criteria), we still cannot conclude that the book itself is illegitimate—Ehrman craftily switches the subject from actually legitimacy of the book to the legitimacy of the reasons for admitting the book, effectively doing nothing in support of his actual argument. Concerning the authorship of Hebrews, I have read in countless places that we ought to listen to Origen, an early church father who addressed this very issue far before actual canonization took place (another interesting point to think about): “But as to who wrote the epistle, God knows the truth.”

Lastly, as far as every other book brought into question about its legitimacy, after reading much extensive debate on the issue, while there definitely is a noticeable tension within the theological community concerning some apparent discrepancies in authorship of the 6 other supposedly Pauline books, there seem to be just as many scholars who support Pauline authorship in those books as those who oppose it. Here, Ehrman seems to fall into the Appeal to Ignorance fallacy—because we do not know if Paul was the author (or some have doubts about the general authorship), we can assume that he is not, and that the given book is illegitimate. This is a false basis of reasoning initially for the reason that I can flip his argument around on itself—because we do not know that Paul was not the author, we can assume that he is, and that the given book is legitimate. Notwithstanding that reasoning, we can also employ the aforementioned Red Herring Fallacy in much the same way. Even if Paul was not the author, it has nothing to do with its actual legitimacy, whether it was canonized for only that reason (again, that’s very unlikely) or not.

Now with all of that in mind, we may are able to re-evaluate your final conclusion on the fact that it’s based on Ehrman’s faulty premises. Your final argument in this section seems to go as follows:

“If 1st or 2nd Peter was not written by Peter, then one of them is a forgery. If one of them is a forgery, then the New Testament contains at least one forgery. If the New Testament contains at least one forgery, then it cannot be the inerrant and infallible word of God and must have then been composed and organized by errant and fallible humans. Therefore, it cannot be the inerrant and infallible word of God and must have then been composed and organized by errant and fallible humans.”

The logical form and argument here is valid. However, being based on what we now know to be false grounds—mainly, the definitive assumption that 1st or 2nd Peter was not written by Peter when it very well could have been—it is an unsound argument.

What I am trying to say by this is that Ehrman’s arguments ultimately lead you astray in your conclusion in that section that the Bible contains forgeries or falsities. After reading this explanation of the problem of being based on his faulty arguments, hopefully you will see that you have less to worry about than you think concerning these logistical aspects of Biblical theology.

Blessings,

Sean


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graceomalley 5 years ago

Concerning whether Peter wrote both first & second Peter - Professor Ehrman brought up a point I think even more relevant to the discussion in one of his books. (Sorry, i can't remember which - I've read a few.) He pointed out that Peter himself was almost certainly illiterate. In Acts, Jewish leaders refer to Peter as 'an unlettered man,' as a professional fisherman of the time Peter would not have enough education to read or write, archeological evidence of the town where Peter lived seems to indicate an illiterate population, as there are no written public signs. Both Peter letters are the work of a writer with not only an excellent education, but a Greek based education. To think that a Jewish fisherman had such an education is at best improbable. Did Peter become educated after his time as Jesus' disciple? It seems unlikely that an illiterate adult of the laboring classes would 'go back to school' and transform into a highly trained writer conversant in Greek scholarship. As Professor Ehrman points out, one can't prove it didn't happen, but it seems quite unlikely.

Much more likely to my own mind is the possibility that highly educated Christian converts who found Peter the most compelling figure in the church wrote these letters. I think it is possible they even read their work to their mentor Peter, changed things he didn't like, ect.

All of this is speculation, but I wrote to say i find Prof. Ehrman's argument that Peter authored neither letter compelling.

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