Jesus, Interrupted
Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (and Why We Don't Know About Them)
Bart D. Ehrman
Harper One, New York (USA), 2009 (2009)
292 pages, including notes

Bart D. Ehrman, a New Testament scholar at University of Norh Carolina at Chapel Hill, shares in this book some of the findings that experts in Blibical studies made when applying the historical-critical method to the study of the book. Instead of reading the Gospels "vertically" (i.e., starting from the beginning and reading through until the end), the author tells us that the experts quite often choose to read them in a "horizontal" manner (i.e., comparing sections from one book to similar ones from another book). The method proves particularly fruitful in the case of the New Testament.

Ehrman starts by telling us that he used to be a strong Evangelical believer who saw the Bible directly as the word of God, without any further consideration. Yet, as soon as he started his studies at the Princeton Theological Seminary, he was exposed to a different view of the Bible that would change his life. As a born-again Christian, it came as a surprise to him that, when directly engaged in a serious historical study of the sacred book, he might be able to discover so many internal contradictions. He was by no means the only one to be shocked by these findings but, as he himself explains, the interesting thing is that all other students who later went on to become pastors seemed to keep this experience to themselves:

One of the most amazing and perplexing features of mainstream Christianity is that seminarians who learn the historical-critical method in their Bible classes appear to forget all about it when it comes time for them to be pastors. They are taught critical approaches to Scripture, they learn about the discrepancies and contradictions, they discover all sorts of historical errors and mistakes, they come to realize that it is difficult to know whether Moses existed or what Jesus actually said and did, they find that there are other books that were at one time considered canonical but that ultimately did not become part of Scripture (for example, other Gospels and Apocalypses), they come to recognize that a good number of the books of the Bible are pseudonumous (for example, written in the name of an apostle by someone else), that in fact we don't have the original copies of any of the biblical books but only copies made centuries later, all of which have been altered. They learn all this, and yet when they enter church ministry they appear to put it back on the shelf. For reasons I will explore in the conclusion, pastors are, as a rule, reluctant to teach what they learned about the Bible in seminary.

(Bart D. Ehrman: Jesus, Interrupted, pp. 12-13)

Let us be clear from the beginning. Ehrman does not necessarily argue that the book is a fake, but rather that, knowing what we now know, if one is to believe in it, it would have to be in a non-literal way and, above all, accepting that the pages were penned by human beings. So, for instance, the first clear discrepancy that he deals with is that of the day when Jesus died, which is not clear from the Bible itself:

I can't give a full analysis here, but I will point out a significant feature of John's Gospel —the last of our Gospels to be written, probably some twenty-five years or so after Mark's. John is the only Gospel that indicates that Jesus is "the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world." This is declared by John the Baptist at the very beginning of the narrative (John 1:29) and again six verses later (John 1:35). Why, then, did John —our latest Gospel— change the day and time when Jesus dies? It may be because in John's Gospel, Jesus is the Passover Lamb, whose sacrifice brings salvation from sins. Exactly like the Passover Lamb, Jesus has to die on the day (the Day of Preparation) and the time (sometime after noon), when the Passover lambs were being slaughtered in the Temple.

In other words, John has changed a historical datum in order to make a theological point: Jesus is the sacrificial lamb. And to convey this theological point, John has had to create a discrepancy between his account and the others.

(Bart D. Ehrman: Jesus, Interrupted, p. 28)

Obviously, this discrepancy is far from the only one, and Ehrman goes on to cite a few others. So, in the next section of this second chapter, he moves onto the discrepancies in the accounts of Jesus' birth and early life. In order to do this, he compares Matthew 1:18-2:23 to Luke 1:4-2:40:

Before examining the differences between these two accounts, I should point out that the historian finds real difficulties in both of them. In Matthew, for example, what does it mean that there is a star guiding the wise men, that this star stops over Jerusalem, and then starts up again, leads them to Bethlehem, and stops again over the very house where Jesus was born? What kid of star would this be, exactly? A star that moves slowly enough for the wise men to follow on foot or on camel, stops, starts again, and stops again? And how exactly does a star stop over a house? I tell my students to go outside on some starry night, pick one of the brightest stars in the sky, and figure out which house on their bloclk it is standing over. Obviously what is being narrated here is a miraculous event, but it is very hard to understand what the author actually has in mind. It doesn't appear to be a real star, a nova, a comet, or any astronomical phenomenon ever known.

In terms of historical record, I should also point out that there is no account in any ancient source whatsoever about King Herod slaughtering children in or around Bethlehem, or anyplace else. No other author, biblical or otherwise, mentions the event. Is it, like John's account of Jesus' death, a detail made up by Matthew in order to make some kind of theological point?

The historical problems with Luke are even more pronounced. For one thing, we have relatively good records for the reign of Caesar Augustus, and there is no mention anywhere in any of them of an empire-wide census for which everyone had to register by returning to their ancestral home. And how could such a thing even be imagined? Joseph returns to Bethlehem because his ancestor David was born there. But David lived a thousand years before Joseph. Are we to imagine that everyone in the Roman Empire was required to return to the homes of their ancestors from a thousand years earlier? If we had a new worldwide census today and each of us had to return to the towns of our ancestors a thousand years back —where would you go? Can you imagine the total disruption of human life that this kind of universal exodus would require? And can you imagine that such a project would never be mentioned in any of the newspapers? There is not a single reference to any such census in any ancient source, apart from Luke. Why then does Luke say there was such a census? The answer may seem obvious to you. He wanted Jesus to be born in Bethlehem, even though he knew he came from Nazareth. Matthew did too, but he got him born there in a different way.

(Bart D. Ehrman: Jesus, Interrupted, pp. 32-33)

And why this interest in making sure that Jesus was born in Bethlehem? Well, because both Matthew and Luke had an interest to present Jesus as the fulfillment of a very old prophecy that stated that the new Messiah would be born there. So, the authors of the Gospels changed the story to adapt to their own theological needs, which is precisely why they fall into so many contradictions and discrepancies. To be clear, this was a normal way to proceed back then. History, as a more or less scientific pursuit, would not be born until many centuries later. Therefore, it is also the same type of attitude we see in other ancient historians. The subjective needs take precedence over the objective facts.

However, the discrepancies over the life of Jesus are sometimes far more profound than any of this. They also extend to sections that are more central to the actual message:

Some sayings of Jesus are rendered in similar but nevertheless diverging ways. One of my favorite examples of this phenomenon is the pair of sayings related in Matthew 12:30 and Mark 9:40. In Mattew, Jesus declares, "Whoever is not with me is against me." In Mark, he says, "Whoever is not against us is for us." Did he say both things? Could he mean both things? How can both be true at once? Or is it possible that one of the Gospel writers got things switched around?

(Bart D. Ehrman: Jesus, Interrupted, p. 41)

As Ehrman himself states later, in chapter 3:

The historical-critical approach to the Bible does not assume that each author has the same message. It allows for the possibility that each author has his own perspective, his own views, his own understandings of what the Christian faith is and should be. The discrepancies we have already considered are crucial for showing us that there are differences among the biblical writers. The major differences we are about to discuss should force us to recognize that the discrepancies are not merely a matter of minutiae but are issues of great importance.

(Bart D. Ehrman: Jesus, Interrupted, p. 63)

He then goes on...

But of course, if we are to allow that each author of the New Testament has his own perspective, we then have to conclude that the books could not have been written by God himself. As a matter of fact, the writers could not have been God's pen either, since their own prejudices, assumptions and intentions are clearly reflected on the text itself. Thus, a careful reader can clearly distinguish certain patterns and differences:

Although many casual readers of the New Testament have not noticed it, the Gospel of John is a different kettle of fish altogether. With the exception of the Passion Narratives, most of the stories found in John are not found in the Synoptics, and most of the stories in the Synoptic Gospels are not found in John. And when they do cover similar territory, John's stories are strikingly different from the others. This can be seen by doing a king of global comparison of John and the Synoptics.

(Bart D. Ehrman: Jesus, Interrupted, p. 71)

Ehrman then goes on to discuss some of those differences: significant differences in the content regarding the birth of Jesus, as well as other differences regarding the virgnity of Mary, the divinity of Jesus, the teachings, and the reason why he performed miracles.

Likewise, Ehrman also sees clear differences between the Gospels and Paul. One such difference that I found particularly interesting involves the idea of "justification":

Paul uses the word "justification" to refer to a person's having a right standing before God. Paul's view of justification can be found principally in his letters to the Galatians and the Romans. In these letters he had various ways of explaining how a person could have a right standing before God. His best-known and arguably most pervasive view (which is found in his other letters as well) is that a person is "justified by faith" in Christ's death and resurrection, not by observing the works of the Jewish law.

(Bart D. Ehrman: Jesus, Interrupted, p. 86)

Now, the reason why I found this detail particularly interesting is because it provides, it seems to me, the basis for Luther's later reinterpretation of the very same idea. However, on this topic Paul is at odds with what the other authors state:

Paul thought that followers of Jesus who tried to keep the law were in danger of losing their salvation. Matthew thought that followers of Jesus who did not keep the law, and do so even better than most religious Jews, would never attain salvation. Theologians and interpreters over the years have tried to reconcile these two views, which is perfectly understandable, since both of them are in the canon. But anyone who reads the Gospel of Matthew and then reads the letter to the Galatians would never suspect that there was a reason, or a way, to reconcile these two statements. For Matthew, to be great in the kingdom requires keeping the very least of the commandments; just getting into the kingdom requires keeping them better than the scribes and Pharisees. For Paul, getting into the kingdom (a different way of saying being justified) is made possible only by the death and resurrection of Jesus; for gentiles, keeping the Jewish law (for example, circumcision) is strictly forbidden.

(Bart D. Ehrman: Jesus, Interrupted, p. 90)

Worse yet, the differences among the authors affect central tenets of the faith, such as the reason why Jesus died on the cross:

So what is the reason for Jesus' death in Luke? The matter becomes clearer in Luke's second volume, the book of Acts, where the apostles preach about the salvation that has come in Christ in order to convert others to the faith. In none of these missionary sermons is there a single word about Jesus' death being an atonement. Instead, the constant message is that people are guilty for rejecting the one sent from God and having him killed. The death of the innocent one (Jesus) should make people repent of their sins and turn to God, so he can forgive them (see acts 2:36-38; 3:17-19). Luke's view is that salvation comes not through an atoning sacrifice but by forgiveness that comes from repentance.

But aren't atonement and forgiveness the same thing? Not at all. It's like this. Suppose you owe me a hundred dollars but can't pay. There are a couple of ways the problem could be solved. Someone else (a friend, your brother, your parents) could pay the hundred dollars for you. That would be like atonement: someone else pays your penalty. Or, instead of that, I could simply say, "Never mind, I don't need the money." That would be like forgiveness, in which no one pays and God simply forgives the debt.

The death of Jesus is important to both Mark and Luke. But for Mark, his death is an atonement; for Luke, it is the reason people realize they are sinful and need to turn to God for forgiveness. The reason of Jesus' deaht, then, is quite different, depending on which author you read.

(Bart D. Ehrman: Jesus, Interrupted, pp. 93-94)

Once that is clarified, Ehrman turns to who wrote the Bible in chapter four of the book. To many, the issue being raised may sound quite pointless. The Gospels were written by Jesus' disciples, right? Well, no, not really.

In short, who were Jesus' disciples? Lower-class, illiterate, Aramaic-speaking peasants from Galilee.

And who were the authors of the Gospels? Even though they all kept their identities anonymous, we can learn a few things about them from the books they wrote. What we learn stands completely at odds with what we know about the disciples of Jesus. The authors of the Gospels wre highly educated, Greek-speaking Christians who probably lived outside Palestine.

That they were highly educated Greek speakers goes virtually without saying. Although there have been scholars from time to time who thought that the Gospels may originally have been written in Aramaic, the overwhelming consensus today, for lots of technical linguistic reasons, is that the Gospels were all written in Greek. As I've indicated, only about 10 percent of the people in the Roman Empire, at best, could read, even fewer could write out sentences, far fewer still could actually compose narratives on a rudimentary level, and very few indeed could compose extended literary works like the Gospels. To be sure, the Gospels are not the most refined books to appear in the empire —far from it. Still, they are coherent narratives written by highly trained authors who knew how to construct a story and carry out their literary aims with finesse.

Whoever these authors were, they were unusually gifted Christians of a later generation. Scholars debate where they lived and worked, but their ignorance of Palestinian geography and Jewish customs suggests they composed their works somewhere else in the empire —presumably in a large urban area where they could have received a decent education and where there would have been a relatively large community of Christians.

These authors were not lower-class, illiterate, Aramaic-speaking peasants from Galilee. But isn't it possible that, say, John wrote the Gospel as an old man? That as a young man he was an illiterate, Aramaic-speaking day laborer —a fisherman from the time he was old enough to help haul in a net— but that as an old man he wrote a Gospel?

I suppose it's possible. It would mean that after Jesus' resurrection John decided to go to school and become literate. He learned the basics of reading, picked up the rudiments of writing, and learned Greek, well enough to become completely fluent. By the time he was an old man he had mastered composition and was able to write a Gospel. Is this likely? It hardly seems so. John and the other followers of Jesus had other things on their minds after experiencing Jesus' resurrection. For one thing, they though they had to convert the world and run the church.

(Bart D. Ehrman: Jesus, Interrupted, pp. 106-107)

In fact, the amount of evidence is overwhelming. Ehrman discusses some of it, but it certainly does not take much research to find plenty of information on the topic. That the Gospels were truly written by the disciples themselves seems highly unlikely, not to say impossible. There is just too much evidence to prove the opposite. It is far more likely that they were written by other people, much later, based on the oral tradition that had been built over time among the Christian followers themselves.

And so we have an answer to our ultimate question of why these Gospels are so different from one another. They were not written by Jesus' companions or by companions of his companions. They were written decades later by people who didn't know Jesus, who lived in a different country or different countries from Jesus, and who spoke a different language from Jesus. They are different from each other in part because they also didn't know each other, to some extent they had different sources of informatin (although Matthew and Luke drew on mark), and they modified their stories on the basis of their own understandings of who Jesus.

The fact that the Gospels were not actually written by apostles does not make them unusual in the New Testament. Quite the contrary, it makes them typical. Most of the books in the New Testament go under the names of people who didn't actually write them. This has been well known among scholars for the greater part of the past century, and it is taught widely in mainline seminaries and divinity schools throughout the country. As a result, most pastors know it as well. But for many people on the street and in the pews, this is "news".

(Bart D. Ehrman: Jesus, Interrupted, p. 112)

Incidentally, although what I am about to say is quite secondary, the issue of what language the Gospels were written in is of certain importance in a different context. I have repeatedly heard from the mouth of Christian traditionalists about the importance of the King James' version of the Bible as an authoritative translation from the original Greek documents which, supposedly, is far closer to the intent of the Gospels than any other. Yet, one has to wonder to what extent the Greek documents were themselves close to what was originally said in Aramaic, or perhaps plenty of information was lost in that other translation. After all, anybody who has any experience translating documents from one language to another can attest about the difficulties of the process. If this happens in this day and age, what could not happen back then, when neither the education nor the resources were nearly what they are today? That, of course, setting aside the problems to translate concepts between languages (and historical ages) as different as Arameic, ancient Greek and English.

In chapter 5, Ehrman discusses the figure of the historical Jesus. The title of the chapter (Liar, Lunatic, or Lord? Finding the Historical Jesus) is a clear homage to C.S. Lewis and his renowned trilemma. The key, of course, is that of the sources:

What sources do we have for Jesus? Well, we have multiple sources in the Gospels of the New Testament. That part is good. But they are not written by eyewitnesses who were contemporary with the events they narrate. They were written thirty-five to sixty-five years after Jesus' death by people who did not know him, did not see anything he did or hear anything that he taught, people who spoke a different language from his and lived in a different country from him. The acounts they produced are not disinterested; they are narratives produced by Christians who actually believed in Jesus, and therefore were not immune from slanting the stories in light of their biases. They are not completely free from collaboration, since Mark was used as a source for Matthew and Luke. And rather than being fully consistent with one another, they are widely inconsistent, with discrepancies filling their pages, both contradictions in details and divergent large-scale understandings of who Jesus was.

(Bart D. Ehrman: Jesus, Interrupted, pp. 143-144)

Obviously, not the best sources to approach the historical Jesus. So, how about other sources? After all, by the time of Jesus there was already an incipient tradition of historiography. We certainly have accounts of many other historical figures that preceded him. Did anybody else write anything about him? Well, that is certainly an interesting issue.

What do Greek and Roman sources have to say about Jesus? Or to make the question more pointed: if Jesus lived and died in the first century (death around 30 CE), what do Greek and Roman sources from his own day through the end of the century (say, the year 100) have to say about him? The answer is breathtaking. They have abslutely nothing to say about him. He is never discussed, challenged, attacked, maligned or talked about in any way in any surviving pagan source of the period. There are no birth records, accounts of his trial and death, reflections on his significance, or disputes about his teachings. In fact, his name is never mentioned once in any pagan source. And we have a lot of Greek and Roman sources from the period: religious scholars, historians, philosophers, poets, natural scientists; we have thousands of private letters; we have inscriptions placed on buildings in public places. In no first-century Greek or Roman (pagan) source is Jesus mentioned.

Scholars have never been sure what to make of that. Most simply suppose that Jesus wasn't all that important in his day. But whether or not that is right, the reality is that if we want to know what Jesus said and did, we cannot rely on what his enemies in the empire were saying. As far as we know, they weren't saying anything.

The first time Jesus is mentioned in a pagan source is in the year 112 CE. The author, Pliny the Younger, was a governor of a Roman province. In a letter that he wrote to his emperor, Trajan, he indicates that there was a group of people called Christians who were meeting illegally; he wants to know how to handle the situation. These people, he tells the emperor, "worship Christ as a God." That's all he says about Jesus. It's not much to go on if you want to know anything about the historical Jesus.

A bit more information is provided by a friend of Pliny's, the Roman historian Tacitus. In writing his history of Rome in the year 115, Tacitus mentions the fire, set by Nero, that took place in Rome in 64, for which the emperor blamed "the Christians." Tacitus explains that the Christians get their name from "Christus... who was executed at the hands of the procurator Pontius Pilate in the reign of Tiberius" (Annals 15.44). He goes on to say that the "superstition" of Christianity first appeared in Judea before spreading to Rome. Here at least is some confirmation of what we already knew from the Gospels of Jesus' death at the hands of Pilate. But Tacitus, like Pliny, gives us nothing to go on if we want to know what Jesus really said and did.

(Bart D. Ehrman: Jesus, Interrupted, pp. 148-149)

As a matter of fact, it looks to me as if both, Pliny and Tacitus, write not so much about Jesus as about the Christians. Also, it seems clear to me that Tacitus simply relates what goes around and is commonly accepted by other people at the time (i.e., that Jesus was executed by Pontius Pilate), whether or not that is historically correct. In other words, even this historical record from a pagan source is most likely caused by a Christian source or, at the very least, a common assumption that people made at the time based on what Christians said about Jesus. One way or another, it seems clear that the historical evidence for Jesus is quite flimsy. This is not to say that he never existed, of course. But it pretty much limits our sources about him to those of his own followers, which are obviously tainted (imagine if we were to base our understanding of Hitler or Stalin solely on what was written by their supporters).

So, if we were to take a guess on what a historical Jesus may have been like, what would we settle on? Ehrman thinks that he may have been one of many other apocalyptic prophets that lived in Palestine at the time.

Like other apocalypticists of his day, Jesus saw the world in dualistic terms, filled with the forces of good and evil. The current age was controlled by the forces of evil —the Devil, demons, disease, disasters, and death; but God was soon to intervene in this wicked age to overthrow the forces of evil and bring in his good kingdom, the Kingdom of God, in which there would be no more pain, misery, or suffering. Jesus' followers could expect this kingdom to arrive soon —in fact, in their lifetimes. It would be brought by a cosmic judge of the earth, whom Jesus called the Son of Man (alluding to a passage in the Jewish Scriptures, Daniel 7:13-14). When the Son of Man arrived there would be a judgment of the earth, in which the wicked would be destroyed but the righteous rewarded. Those who were suffering pain and oppression now would be exalted then; those who had sided with evil and as a result were prospering now would be abased then. People needed to repent of their evil ways and prepare for the coming of the Son of Man and the Kingdom of God that would appear in his wake, for it was to happen very soon.

You don't hear this view of Jesus very often in Sunday School or from the pulpit. But it is the view that has been taught for many years in leading seminaries and divinity schools throughout the country. There are strong and compelling arguments for thinking of Jesus in these apocalyptic terms. Most important, the traditions that present Jesus this way, all of them from the New Testament Gospels, are the ones that pass our various criteria of authenticity.

(Bart D. Ehrman: Jesus, Interrupted, pp. 156-157)

In other words, it is quite likely that the real, historical Jesus, were more of an apocalyptic prophet than we care to accept these days. An approach that, no doubt, would also change our point of view on his moral teachings:

Jesus' ethical teachings need to be placed in that apocalyptic context. Many people understand Jesus as a great moral teacher, and of course he was that. But it is important to recognize why he thought people should behave properly. In our day, ethicists typically argue that people should behave in ethical ways so that we can all get along for the long haul, in happy and prosperous societies. For Jesus, thre wasn't going to be a long haul. The end was coming soon, the Son of Man was to appear from heaven, imminently, in judgment on the earth, the Kingdom of God was right around the corner. The reason to change your behavior was to gain entrance to the kingdom when it came. It was not to make society a happy place for the foreseeable future. The future was bleak —unless you sided with Jesus and did what he urged, in which case you could expect a reward when God intervened in history to overthrow the forces of evil and set up his good kingdom on earth, which would happen very soon.

(Bart D. Ehrman: Jesus, Interrupted, pp. 161-162)

Now, say what you may but, it seems to me, this apocalyptic Jesus is far more likely to ressemble the historical one, knowing what we know about his time and his place, as well as his tradition. As a matter of fact, this Jesus fits perfectly into the Jewish glove, so to speak. The view of ethics as a set of propositions to let us "get along for the long haul", so that we can live in "happy and prosperous societies" is a very modern slant that most likely was not present in the mind of the historical Jesus.

And so, we make it to chapter six, where Ehrman discusses how we got the Bible that we have today. For, contrary to what many people believe, the New Testament that we know today was not a given since the very beginning. It followed a process. But first, Ehrman sums up his conclusions about the book:

Even though Misquoting Jesus [another book of his] seemed to stir up a bit of a hornet's nest, at least among conservative evangelical Christians, its overarching theses were almost entirely noncontroversial. I would summarize them as follows:

  • We don't have the originals of any of the books of the New Testament.
  • The copies we have were made much malter, in most instances many centuries later.
  • We have thousands of thse copies, in Greek —the language in which of all the New Testament books were originally written.
  • All of these copies contain mistakes —accidental slips on the part of the scribes who made the or intentional alterations by scribes wanting to change the text to make it say what they wanted it to mean (or thought that it did mean).
  • We don't know how many mistakes there are among our surviving copies, but they appear to number in the hundreds of thousands. It is safe to put the matter in comparative terms: there are more differences in our manuscripts than there are words in the New Testament.
  • The vast majority of these mistakes are completely insignificant, showing us nothing more than that scribes in antiquity could spell no better than most people can today.
  • But some of the mistakes matter —a lot. Some of them affect the interpretation of a verse, a chapter, or an entire book. Others reveal the kinds of concerns that were affecting the scribes, who sometimes altered the text in light of debates and controversies going on in their own surroundings.
  • The task of the textual critic is both to figure out what the author of a text actually wrote and to understand why scribes modified the text (to help us understand the context within which scribes were working).
  • Despite the fact that scholars have been working diligently at these tasks for three hundred years, there continue to be heated differences of opinion. There are some passages where serious and very smart scholars disagree about what the original text said, and there are some places where we will probably never know what the original text said.

(Bart D. Ehrman: Jesus, Interrupted, pp. 183-184)

All in all, I would say, a pretty reasonable position that is quite faithful to the evidence available to us (and no, I am not referring only to the evidence from Ehrman's own books, but to the evidence that has come to be widely accepted by the community of Bible scholars). It is also evidence that, in principle, should not have a negative impact on anyone's faith, although it may have an impact (and rightly so, I'd dare say) on those who believe in an inerrant Bible. As Ehrman points out, some of these facts do have serious implications on the doctrine:

In response to the assertion, made by conservative evangelicals, that not a single important Christian doctrine is affected by any textual variant, I point out:

  1. It simply isn't true that important doctrines are not involved. As a key example: the only place in the entire New Testament where the doctrine of the Trinity is explicitly taught is in a passage that made it into the King James translation (1 John 5:7-8) but is not found in the vast majority of the Greek manuscripts of the New Testament. I would suggest that the Trinity is a rather important Christian doctrine. A typical response to this rebuttal is that the doctrine of the Trinity can be found in Scripture without appealing to 1 John 5:7-8. My reply is that this is true of every single Christian doctrine. In my experience, theologians do not hold to a doctrine because it is found in just one verse; you can take away just about any verse and still find just about any Christian doctrine somewhere else if you look hard enough.
  2. It seems to me to be a very strange criterion of significance to say that textual variants ultimately don't matter because they don't affect any cardinal Christian doctrine. Why is Christian doctrine the ultimate criterion of significance? Suppose, for example, that we discovered a manuscript of the Gospel of Matthew that for some reason was lacking chapters 4-13. Would that be significant? I should think so. But would it affect anyone's doctrine? Not at all. Or take an even more extreme example. Suppose we all woke up tomorrow morning and found that every trace of the books of Mark, Philippians, James and 1 Peter had been removed from every New Testament on the planet. Would that be significant? It would be huge! Would it affect any Christian doctrine? Not in the least.
  3. Most important, some of the textual variants do matter deeply, for things other than "cardinal Christian doctrines."
    1. Some matter for how to interpret entire books of the New Testament. Take a couple of variants in the Gospel of Luke. First, did Luke think that Jesus was in agony when going to his death, or that he was calm and controlled? It depends entirely on what you make of the textual variant in Luke 22:43-44, where Jesus allegedly sweated great drops as if of blood before his arrest. Leave the verses in, as some manuscripts do, and Jesus is obviously in deep agony. Take them out and there is no agony, either in this passage or anywhere else in Luke's Passion narrative, as we saw earlier when we noticed that Luke had eliminated all of Mark's references to Jesus' being in pain, uncertain up to the end. Second, did Luke understand that Jesus' death was an atonement for sin? It depends on what you do with Luke 22:19-20. Everywhere else in Luke, as we saw in chapter 3, Luke has eliminated Mark's references to Jesus' death as an atonment. The only remnant of that teaching is in some manuscripts of the Lord's Supper, where Jesus says that the bread is his body to be broken "for you" and the cup is his blood poured out "for you." But in our earliest and best manuscripts, these words are missing (much of v. 19 and all of v. 20). It appears scribes have added them to make Luke's view of Jesus' death conform to Mark's and Matthew's. I'd say that's rather important —unless you think that Luke's views on the subject don't really matter.
    2. Some variants, including those just mentioned, are terrifically important for knowing what traditions about Jesus were in circulation among the early Christians. Did Jesus have an encounter with an adulterous woman and her accusers in which he told them "Let the one without sin among you be the first to cast a stonre at her," and in which he told her, after all her accusers had left, "Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more"? It depends on which manuscripts of John you read. After his resurrection, did Jesus tell his disciples that those who came to believe in him would be able to handle snakes and drink deadly poison without being harmed? It depends on which manuscripts of Mark you read.
    3. Some variants are crucial for understanding what was going on in these communities of the scribes who were copying the texts. Some scribes, for example, omitted the prayer of Jesus spoken while being crucified, "Father forgive them, for they don't know what they were doing" (Luke 23:34). Early Christians interpreted this as a prayer of forgiveness for the Jews, ignorant of what they had done. No wonder some scribes omitted the verse in the context of Christian anti-Judaism in the second and third centuries, when many Christians believed that Jews knew exactly what they were doing and that God had in no way forgiven them. Or as an example from Paul: it appears that Paul's injunction to women to be "silent" in the churches and "subordinate" to their husbdans was not originally part of 1 Corinthians 14 (vv. 34-35) but was added by later scribes intent on keeping women in their place. Is that significant or not?
  4. Finally, I have to say that I actually don't believe it when conservative evangelicals say that the textual variations in the New Testament don't matter very much. If they don't matter, why do such conservative evangelical seminaries as Dallas Theological Seminary (headed by one of my outspoken critics on the matter) and New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary sponsor multi-million-dollar projects to examine the Greek manuscripts of the New Testament? If the differences in the manuscripts don't matter, why bother to study them? If they are completely insignificant, why devote one's career to examining them? If they are altogether immaterail, why devote millions of dollars to investigating them? I wonder what such people say when they're out raising money for their projects: "We'd like you to invest five hundred thousand dollars to help us study the manuscripts of the New Testament, because we don't think they have any significance"?

(Bart D. Ehrman: Jesus, Interrupted, pp. 186-189)

It definitely sounds as if Ehrman has an ax to grind, at least against the conservative evangelical Christians. Now, whether or not that invalidates his opinions is a different matter. Personally, it seems clear to me that his is a very well reasoned case, supported by plenty of material evidence. We may like or dislike his views, but the evidence seems to be quite clear. Now, none of this proves that the Christian faith is wrong. It just speaks to the form that faith may take. Ehrman himself addresses that issue later in the book.

In any case, as we said earlier, plenty of people incorrectly believe that the Bible was somehow "written in stone" at some point in the past, presumably when God gave it us, human beings. Nothing further from the truth, as Ehrman explains:

Some of my students tend to think that the Bible just kind of descended from heaven one day in July, a short time after Jesus died. The New Testament is the New Testament. Always has been and always will be. You can go into any store in any part of the country, or any part of the Western world, and buy a New Testament, and it is always the same collection of twenty-seven books, the four Gospels followed by Acts followed by the epistles and ending with the Apocalypse. Surely it has always been that way.

But it has not always been that way. Quite the contrary, the debate over which books to include in the Bible was long and hard fought. As difficult as this is to believe, there never was a final decision accepted by every church in the world; historically there have always been some churches in some countries (Syria, Armenia, Ethiopia) that have slightly different canons of Scripture from the one we have. Even the twenty-seven-book canon with which all of us are familiar did not ever get ratified by a church council of any kind —until the anti-Reformation Catholic Council of Trent in the sixteenth century, which also ratified the Old Testament Apocrypha, in response to the widespread Protestant rejection of these books as noncanonical. In a strange way, the canon, far from being definitely decided upon at some point of time, emerged without anyone taking a vote.

Not that it happened by accident. The canon was formed through a process of a long series of debates and conflicts over which books ought to be included. These debates were fueled not only by a general sense that it would be a good thing to know which books are authoritative, but even more by a very real and threatening situation that early Christians confronted. In the very first centuries of the church, lots of different Christian groups espoused a wide range of theological and ecclesiastical views. These different groups were completely at odds with each other over some of the most fundamental issues: How many Gods are there? Was Jesus human? Was he divine? Is the material world inherently good or evil? Does salvation come to the human body, or does it come by escaping the body? Does Jesus' death have anything to do with salvation?

The problem in the development of the canon of Scripture was that each and every one of the competitive groups of Christians —each of them insisting they were right, each trying to win converts— had sacred books that authorized their points of view. And most of these books claimed to be written by apostles. Who was right? The canon that emerged from these debates represented the books favored by the group that ended up winning. It did not happen overnight. In fact, it took centuries.

(Bart D. Ehrman: Jesus, Interrupted, pp. 190-191)

Or, as it is often said, the winner writes History. In this case, obviously, it is sacred History, which makes it far more powerful.

The fact is that the early Christian Church was quite diverse. Ebionites, Marcionites, Gnostics and a myriad other groups disputed the hegemony to what Ehrman calls "the Proto-Orthodox Christians" (i.e., the group that ended up winning in the struggle and, therefore, ultimately imposed its own set of beliefs as the new orthodoxy). It is important to emphasize that all those groups had their own set of manuscripts that they followed and that, of course, they used to justify their own dogma. We are talking about documents such as the Gospel of the Ebionites, the Coptic Gospel of Thomas, the Acts of Thecla, the Third Epistle to the Corinthians, the Letter of Barnabas, the Apocalypse of Peter or the Coptic Apocalypse of Peter. All these manuscripts presented differing views of the significance of Jesus' life and death, different theological approaches, etc. The early Christian Church was, indeed, a chaotic field where thousands of different flowers bloomed at the same time, spreading throughout the Roman Empire without control. It was far from the picture of a homogeneous church with a clear dogma that our movies depict.

In any case, a big problem we have to discuss what happened during those years is that most of our sources are seriously biased:

Since Eusebius' Church History is our only source of information about much of what happened in the second and third Christian centuries, it is no surprise that Eusebius's perspective shaped how Christian scholars through the ages understood the relationship of orthodoxy and heresy in the period. As a member of the Christian group that won our over the others, Eusebius maintained that the views he and like-minded Christian leaders of the fourth century held were not only right (orthodox) but also that they were the same views Jesus and his apostles had promoted from day one.

To be sure, there were occasional dissenters, as willful heretics tried to pervert the original messages of Jesus. To Eusebius, anyone promoting one of these alternative perspectives (including the Ebionites, Marcion, the various Gnostics) was inspired by wicked demons and represented only a fringe movement in the great forward progress of orthodoxy. For Eusebius, certain beliefs were and always had been orthodox: the belief that there was only one God, the creator of all; that the material world was created good; that Jesus, God's son, was both human and divine. These were the original beliefs of the church and had always been the majority view.

Heresies, then, were seen to be offshoots of orthodoxy that came along as the demons tried to work their nefarious purposes in the church and pervert the truth. Heresy was always secondary (coming after orthodoxy), derivative (altering the views of orthodoxy), and perverted. But God was ultimately triumphant, and the truth suppressed these heretical movements, until the orthodox Christian religion became a powerful force near the time of the emperor Constantine.

(Bart D. Ehrman: Jesus, Interrupted, pp. 212-213)

Does this sound familiar? It should. It is the orthodox approach taken by the Church throughout the Middle Ages and way into Modernity. In other words, the form of dogmatism (and, yes, fanaticism) that would come later was already prefigured by Eusebius and others at the very beginning.

However, given that, as we said before, the early Christian church was so diverse and chaotic, the task at hand was obviously titanic. How was it accomplished? Ehrman gives us a clue:

The problem the proto-orthodox had to face from early on was that so many books claimed to be written by apostles. How were they to decide which ones really were apostolic, and therefore authoritative? No one from the early church actually lays out a set of criteria to be followed, but by reading such ancient accounts as Eusebius's story of Serapion and the account in the Muratorian Canon, it becomes evident that four criteria were particularly important:

  • Antiquity. By the second and third centuries it was clear to many of the proto-orthodox that even if a recently penned writing was important, useful, and trustworthy, it could not be seen as sacred Scripture. Scriptural books had to be ancient, going back to the original decades of the Christian church.
  • Catholicity. Only those books that were widely used throughout the proto-orthodox church could be accepted as Scripture. Books that had only local appeal might be valuable, but they could not be considered part of the canon.
  • Apostolicity. This is one of the most important criteria. For a book to be considered Scripture it had to have been written by an apostle or a companion of an apostle. That's why the Gospels were attributed to particular peoplle: Scripture was not acceptable if it was anonymous or if it had been written by any one person. The books needed to have an apostolic origin. In many cases it was difficult to make this judgment. Serapion decided that the Gospel of Peter was not really written by Peter, even though it claimed to be. He did not reach this conclusion by the kind of historical analysis that a modern critic might use. The basis of his decision was quite simple —his preexisting ideas: the book was not sufficiently orthodox, and so could not have been written by Peter.
  • Orthodoxy. Serapion's use of a theological criterion is indicative of how such judgments were typically made. The most important gauge for whether a book could be considered sacred Scripture was whether it promoted a view that the proto-orthodox considered to be acceptable theologically. Books that were not orthodox were nonapostolic; and if they were nonapostolic they could not be scriptural.

(Bart D. Ehrman: Jesus, Interrupted, pp. 219-220)

So, we know the criteria that was used to decide which books would be included in the officially-sanctioned Scriptures. But when was the decision made?

The first time any author from Christian antiquity lists our twenty-seven books and indicates that they are the only twenty-seven books of the canon comes in the year 367 CE. The author is Athanasius, the famous bishop of Alexandria, Egypt. Years earlier Athanasius had played a role in the Council of Nicaea, the first church council to be called by a Roman emperor, Constantine, to resolve important theological issues in the church. After Athanasius became bishop of the important church in Alexandria, he wrote a letter every year to the congregations under his jurisdiction, in order to inform them when the feast of Easter was to be celebrated that year (they didn't have years mapped out in advance, like today). In his thirty-ninth "Festal Letter," Athanasius, as was his wont, gave his readers a good deal of additional pastoral advice, including a list of books that could be read in church. He listed all the books of our New Testament.

(Bart D. Ehrman: Jesus, Interrupted, pp. 219-220)

As Ehrman points out, though, Athanasius' list did not end the debate, which continued for a while. Also, we cannot but conclude that, at the very least, it took about 300 years for the discussions on what constituted the canon to take some clear shape.

The obvious conclusion of all this for any objective-minded person must be about the same drew by the author himself:

When I started studying the Bible as a teenager, with more passion than knowledge (lots of passion; no knowledge), I naturally assumed that this book was given by God. My early teachers in the Bible encouraged that belief and drove it home for me, with increasingly sophisticated views about how God had inspired Scripture, making it a kind of blueprint for my life, telling me what to believe, how to behave, and what to expect would happen when this world came to a crashing halt, soon, with the appearance of Jesus on the clouds of heaven.

Obviously I no longer look at the Bible that way. Instead I see it as a very human book, not a divinely inspired one. To be sure, a good many parts of it are inspiring, but I no longer see God's hand behind it all. We don't have the originals that any of these authors wrote, only copies that have been changed by human hands all over the map. And the books that we consider Scripture came to be formed into a canon centuries after they were written. This was not, in my opinion, the result of divine activity; it was the result of very human church leaders (all of them men) doing their best to decide what was right.

(Bart D. Ehrman: Jesus, Interrupted, pp. 222-223)

In chapter seven, Ehrman turns into who "invented" Christianity. And, in order to do this, he starts with the figure of Jesus himself:

Why is it that the vast majority of Jews has always rejected that Jesus is the one who was predicted —a savior from God in order to suffer for others, so as to bring salvation, and then be raised from the dead?

The answer is actually quite simple. In the Jewish tradition, before the appearance of Christianity, there was no expectation of a suffering Messiah.

But doesn't the Bible constantly talk about the Messiah who would suffer? As it turns out, the answer is no. Since the beginning, Christians have frequently cited certain passages in the Old Testament as clear prophecies of the future suffering Messiah, passages such as Isaiah 53 and Psalm 22, in which someone suffers horribly, sometimes expressly for the sins of others. These passages, Christians have claimed, are clear statements about what the Messiah would be like. Jews who do not believe in Jesus, however, have always had a very effective response: the Messiah is never mentioned in these passages. You can check it out for yourself: read Isaiah 53 or Psalm 22 (...). The term "Messiah" never occurs in them. In Jewish tradition, these passages refer not to the Messiah but to someone else (or to lots of someone elses).

Before Christianity there were no Jews that we know of who anticipated a Messiah who would suffer and die for the sins of others and then be raised from the dead. What then would the Messiah be like? We know from Jewish documents written around the time of Jesus that there were various expectations of what the Messiah would be like. In none of these expectations was he anything like Jesus.

(Bart D. Ehrman: Jesus, Interrupted, pp. 228-229)

To make matters worse, the early Christians themselves did not agree on whether or not they should keep the Jewish law:

Did Paul and Matthew see eye to eye on keeping the law? Evidently not. Did Paul and Jesus advocate the same religion? It is a key historical question, and the answer is hard to deny. Jesus taught his followers to keep the law as God had commanded in order to enter the kingdom. Paul taught that keeping the law had nothing to do with entering the kingdom. For Paul, only the death and resurrection of Jesus mattered. The historical Jesus taught the law. Paul taught Jesus. Or, as some scholars have put it, already with Paul the religion of Jesus has become the religion about Jesus. (Although, as I have pointed out, Paul did not invent this new take on Jesus but inherited it.)

(Bart D. Ehrman: Jesus, Interrupted, p. 239)

This transition from the religion of Jesus to the religion about Jesus is certainly quite fascinating, and it also mirrors other similar transitions that took place in human history (e.g., the one from the philosophy of Marx to the one about Marx, which quickly took on quasi-religious proportions).

In any case, this particular dispute about the Jewish law, and whether or not Christians ought to abide by it, quickly derived in a strain of antisemitism that would mark a good part of mainstream Christianity for the centuries to come:

As time went on, Christian anti-Judaism got worse and worse, as Christian authors began to accuse Jews of all sorts of villainous acts, not just of misinterpreting their own Scriptures. Some Christian authors argued that destruction of the city of Jerusalem, the heart of Judaism, by the Romans in 70 CE was God's judgment on the Jews for killing their own Messiah. Eventually Christian authors appeared on the scene who took the logic a step further. As Christians began to see Jesus himself as divine, some maintained that by being responsible for Jesus' death, Jews were in effect guilty of killing God.

(Bart D. Ehrman: Jesus, Interrupted, p. 241)

None of this, obviously, comes as a surprise to a Spaniard who knows the recent history of his own country. After all, Franco's national-catholicism was clearly antisemitic in its own affirmation of both Christianity and the Spanish essences. Almost to the day of his death (and to the end of his regime), Franco always identified any attempt to restore democracy as the evil machinations of a "judeo-Marxist conspiracy" that was nowhere to be found but in his own senile mind.

Even more to the point, this antisemitic streak cannot be blamed on Roman culture, as Ehrman clearly explains:

It comes as a surprise to some readers to learn that this kind of anti-Judaism did not exist in the Roman, Greek, or any other world before the coming of Christianity and is therefore a Christian invention. To be sure, some Roman and Greek authors maligned the Jews for what seemed bizarre customs —mutilating the penises of their boys, refusing to eat pork, being so lazy as to not work on one day of the week (the Sabbath). But Roman and Greek authors maligned everyone who was not Greek or Roman, and the Jews were not singled out. Until Christianity appeared. Then Judaism came to be seen not just as a set of odd and risible practices but as a religion that was perverse and corrupt. Jews were no longer simply strange. They were willful and evil. As a people they had rejected God, and in response he had rejected them.

(Bart D. Ehrman: Jesus, Interrupted, p. 244)

This is the ultimate origin of medieval, modern and contemporary antisemitic attitudes.

However, far more important than this early form of antisemitism was the reason why the diverse Christian communities of the early days had to be unified in a new form of orthodoxy (i.e., the reason why orthodoxy itself had to be defended:

All of this mattered in part because the Roman emperor Constantine had converted to Christianity and wanted to use this new religion to help unify his fractured empire. A split religion could not bring unity. The religion had to be united first. And so the emperor called a meting in Nicaea of the most important Christian bishops in the empire, in order to debate the issues and to make a judgment to be binding to all Christians. This was the famous Council of Nicaea of the year 325 CE.

(Bart D. Ehrman: Jesus, Interrupted, p. 260)

In other words, that it all responded to the political needs of the Empire and Emperor Constantine.

Of course, the conclusion of this chapter cannot be other than the one Ehrman states in the last paragraph o chapter seven:

Christianity as we have come to know it did not, in any event, spring into being overnight. It emerged over a long period of time, through a period of struggles, debates, and conflicts over competing views, doctrines, perspectives, canons, and rules. The ultimate emergence of the Christian religion represents a human invention —in terms of its historical and cultural significance, arguably the greatest invention in the history of Western civilization.

(Bart D. Ehrman: Jesus, Interrupted, p. 268)

No more, no less. Christianity is, in that sense, no different than other philosophies or ways to interpret reality around us, society and the deep mystery of human life.

All this leads to the final chapter of the book, chapter 8, where Ehrman wonders where faith itself is possible. One would think that, after accepting that the Bible is a book written by humans, full of contradictions, that contains plenty of errors (both in the translation and the transcription), and written by people who pretended to be who they truly were not... well, there is simply no room for faith. Yet, Ehrman disagrees:

In my case, when I came to realize that Christianity was a human creation, I felt the need to evaluate what I thought about its claims. And I came to think that they resonated with me extremely well —with how I looked at the world and thought about my place in it. I came to think of the Christian message about God, Christ, and the salvation he brings as a king of religious "myth," or group of myths —a set of stories, views, and perspectives that are both unproven and unprovable, but also un-disprovable— that could, and should, inform and guide my life and thinking.

I continued to believe in a literal God, though I was less and less sure what could actually be said about him (or her or it). And I continued to believe that Jesus himself certainly existed. But the religion built up around God and Jesus was based, I came to believe, on various myths, not historical facts. Jesus' death was not a myth, but the idea that it was a death that brought about salvation was a myth. It could not be historically proved or disproved, but it was a powerful story that I thought could and should govern the way I look at the world and live my life. The death of Jesus was, for me, an act of self-giving love. According to this myth, Jesus was willing to live, and die, for the sake of others. This was an idea that I found to be both noble and ennobling. I believed that his example of self-sacrifice made Christ a being worthy if worship, and I felt his was an example for me to emulate. This was not because I could prove his self-sacrifice as a historical fact but because I could resonate with it personally.

(Bart D. Ehrman: Jesus, Interrupted, pp. 275-276)

This is certainly a very postmodern approach to religion. It is not necessarily that Ehrman's approach is wrong. However, if all there is to Christianity is a myth, an inspiring story that "resonates" with one's own deep convictions about what is worth our lives, then how do we distinguish it from any other myth that serves the same purpose? Should we then apply the "anything goes" motto that postmodernists love so much? Isn't that an extreme form of subjectivism born from a selfish, materialistic, egocentric culture that prefers to be comfortably numb rather than face the harsh truth? It definitely plays well into the pluralistic narrative that dominates contemporary society (i.e., "you believe your myth, and I will believe mine"), whose obvious shortcoming is its inability to provide any compass to guide us. Anything goes, and everything is just as worth it of respect as anything else. Homepathy is just as valid as official medicine, even though it is based on spurious ideas that cannot be proven right by empirical means. It all depends on what one believes, you see. I choose to believe in it, and you have to respect my opinion, even if it has no basis in reality. Don't get me wrong. I like Ehrman's approach to the issue. I can see how Christ is a powerful and inspiring myth worth emulating. I even agree that our society would most likely be better off if the vast majority of us did just that. The same applies to other great religious figures, by the way. For example, the Buddha. However, that is not a religion. That is more like a philosophy or, perhaps, a moral conviction.

One way or another, I have to agree with Ehrman's closing comments:

Probably the one question I get asked more than any other, by people who know that I am an agnostic scholar of the New Testament, is why I continue to study and teach the New Testament if I no longer believe in it?

This is a question that has never made much sense to me. The Bible is the most important book in the history of Western civilization. It is the most widely purchased, the most thoroughly studied, the most highly revered, and the most completely misunderstood book —ever! Why wouldn't I want to study it?

I have friends who teach medieval English. They don't believe in Chaucer, but they think Chaucer is important, and so they spend their lives studying and teaching and writing about Chaucer. The same is true of my friends who teach the classics —Homer, Sophocles, Euripides, Plato, Aristotle, Seneca, Livy, Martial, and Plautus. These are all important authors whose works all deserve the devotion of a scholar's life, irrespective of whatever the scholar's personal beliefs happen to be. The same goes for my friends who study and teach Shakespeare, John Donne, Charles Dickens, or T. S. Eliot.

And it's the same with scholarship devoted to the Bible. The only difference with the Bible is that so many people in our world actually believe in the Bible. I do not belittle anyone who continues to cherish the Bible as an inspired text, but in addition to reading the Bible devotionally there is a value in reading it historically. To be sure, a historical reading can show many of the shortcomings of the Bible —discrepancies, contradictions, faulty claims, impossible statements, and harmful ideologies. But a historical reading can open up entirely new vistas in our understanding of the Bible and its multifarious messages.

Furthermore, even those of us who do not believe in the Bible can still learn from it. It is a book that deserves to be read and studied, not just as a document of faith but also as a historical record of the thoughts, beliefs, experiences, activities, loves, hates, prejudices, and opinions of people who stand at the very foundation of our civilization and culture. It can help us think about the big issues of life —why we are here, what we should be doing, what will become of this world. It can inspire us —and warn us— by its examples. It can urge us to pursue truth, to fight oppression, to work for justice, to insist on peace. It can motivate us to live life more fully while yet we can. It can encourage us to live more for others and not only for ourselves. There will never be a time in the history of the human race when such lessons will have become passé, when the thoughts of important religious thinkers of the past will be irrelevant for those of us living, and thinking, in the present.

(Bart D. Ehrman: Jesus, Interrupted, pp. 282-283)

Or, to put it differently, the Bible is indeed a great book that deserves to be read at least as much as other great books that the past gave us. Among other things, we will hardly be able to understand our own culture, our own history, without being acquainted with it. But, perhaps most important, at least in the case of the New Testament, it can be a positive influence on our own lives.

Jesus, Interrupted is a great read. Ehrman teaches us a lot about the Bible, how it was written, and how to read it. He tells us about the humans behind it, their cultural context and their own struggles. He proves that it was obviously not written by God and that reading it literally makes little sense. He shows us that it is full of contradictions and not so innocent distortions. And yet, he manages to do so while showing respect for the book and sending the message that it still matters. Just for that reason, it is priceless.

[Sat Dec 7 16:23:06 CST 2013]

One last quote from the book that came to mind while having a discussion with my older son about this particular topic:

In the South, it is true, more people revere the Bible than read it. This became clear to me a few years ago when I started asking my undergraduate classes about their views of the Biblbe. I get the same response very year. The first day of class, with over three hundred students present, I ask: "How many of you would agree with the proposition that the Bible is the inspired Word of God?" Whoosh! Virtually everyone in the auditorium raises their hand. I then ask, "How many of you have read one or more of the Harry Potter books?" Whoosh! The whole auditorium. Then I ask, "And how many of you have read the entire Bible." Scattered hands, a few students here and there.

I always laugh and say, "Okay, look. I'm not saying that I think God wrote the Bible. You're telling me that you think God wrote the Bible. I can see why you might want to read a book by J.K. Rowling. But if God wrote a book... wouldn't you want to see what he has to say?" For me it's just one of the mysteries of the universe: how so many people can revere the Bible and think that in it is God's inspired revelation to his people, and yet know so little about it.

(Bart D. Ehrman: Jesus, Interrupted, pp. 226-227)

To be honest, it doesn't surprise me so much. We live in a society where image, marketing and the superficial matter far more than almost anything else. We define ourselves by how we dress and what we consume. We complain about labels, but rely on them all the time, even to "brand" ourselves, to define an "identity" for ourselves. In spite of much higher levels of education, free thinking is as difficult to encounter today as in the past. In general, entertainment is king, and little else matters much —we have reached the point where even politicians are virtually unelectable, unless they are entertaining and "charismatic". I suppose what I mean is that, today (was it ever truy any different?), one is not defined by what one does (i.e., by one's actions), but rather by one's image. "Be whoever you want to be" is today's motto, but it is rarely applied to our actions. More often than not, it is limited to our purchases in the cultural market. Unfortunately, making an effort to be consistent with our own ideas is considered quite "boring", even "dogmatic", these days. The postmodern pensiero debole has triumphed.

Entertainment Factor 7/10
Intellectual Factor: 8/10