July 3, 2008

I mentioned Bart Ehrman’s Misquoting Jesus in my response to nlj21‘s complaint that Karen Armstrong does not provide a source for her claim that the Apostle Paul didn’t write the Pastoral Epistles.

I re-read the book while we were on holiday recently. I’d recommend it, despite the rather sensationalist cover advertising (“OMG the King James Version’s text is bollox, sorry, ‘corrupted and inferior'”: we all knew that, right?), as a lucid introduction to New Testament textual criticism. Luckily, if you’re too cheap to buy it, there’s a video of a lecture covering the book’s key points, available from Google. Ehrman’s an engaging speaker. His responses to questions at the end are particularly good (especially the one from the bloke who’s clearly read Elvis Shot Kennedy: Freemasonry’s Hidden Agenda and therefore “knows” that Jesus spent a lot of time travelling round India before marrying Mary Magdalene).

Ehrman’s another ex-evangelical, who now describes himself as an agnostic. The Washington Post article on him attributes his loss of faith to textual problems (Erhman started out as an inerrantist, a position he found untenable as he studied the NT texts) and the problem of suffering.

On suffering, if, like me, you’re a fan of Bishop Tom (N.T.) Wright and of Ehrman, you’ll probably enjoy their blog debate on the Problem of Evil.

On the Biblical text, people can and do dispute Ehrman’s claims. This review on Ben Witherington’s blog has some good comments from both sides of the debate (if anyone does speak Greek, I’d be interested in whether the grammar of Matthew 28:19 does imply that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are one person as Ben says). Some of the Bible’s defenders are at pains to point out that one can still believe even knowing that the Bible is a very human document which records religious experiences (some of them wouldn’t say that, of course, and defend something like inerrancy). But Dan Barker’s comment evokes the sort of feeling I can imagine Ehrman having as his inerrantist beliefs collapsed, that is, the feeling that he’d been lied to by his evangelical teachers.

There are other good reasons for thinking evangelicalism is probably incorrect, namely that it’s an extra-biblical tradition despite claiming not to be and that it commits you to interpretations which do violence to the Biblical text in an attempt to maintain its inerrancy. Ehrman’s reason seems to strike at the heart of the thing, though: study the history of the text enough and it becomes impossible to take the attitude to it that evangelicals do.