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Memo to Bart Ehrman: Blush

Dr. James Emery White | Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary | Thursday, February 10, 2011

Memo to Bart Ehrman: Blush

Bart Ehrman is the professor at UNC-Chapel Hill who has created a cottage industry of books attempting to tear-down the Christian faith, and belief in the Bible in particular.  He's discovered that the more sensationalistic he becomes, the more his books sell.  As a result, he long ago abandoned even trying to balance his rather sizable biases with the enormous weight of scholarship that is so heavily arrayed against his claims.


Here's his formula: 


1.  Pick out an obsolete perspective or, at best, a minority report on some matter supposedly related to the Bible's integrity.


2.  Ignore the overwhelming weight of mainstream scholarship against said view.  And for goodness sake, don't include it in the book.


3.  Present "findings" as hitherto unknown, and in the most salacious manner possible.  It helps to throw in that it will surely undermine two-thousand years of faith and history.


4.  Screw peer reviews (it wouldn't pass anyway).  Go straight to the tabloids, and laugh all the way to the bank.


Just for fun, here's two quick examples of how shallow Ehrman's contentions tend to run.


First, variant details.


He'll often argue that because in Mark's account of the crucifixion scene the emphasis is on Jesus' agony, yet in John, the emphasis is on Jesus' concern with others, we have a "contradiction."  From this "contradiction," it is clear that the Bible can't be trusted. 


The only problem is that it isn't a contradiction.  By definition, a contradiction is when you assert the opposite of something.  A contradiction would be if Mark said Jesus was in agony, and John said he wasn't in agony.  Nothing of the sort is claimed.  You simply have two variant perspectives of the same event that in no way contradict each other.  Does Mark's agony contradict John's recording of Jesus' concern for his mother?  Of course not.  He could have been in agony and concerned with his mother! 


Or consider Ehrman's challenge that in Matthew, we are told that Peter will deny Christ before the cock crows, and in Mark we are told that Peter will deny Christ before the cock crows twice.  A contradiction would be Matthew saying that the cock crowed, and Mark saying it didn't.  Mark simply supplies an added detail (that it crowed twice), which is not in any tension whatsoever with the more general telling of Matthew.


A second of Ehrman's concerns is chronology.  In the gospels, various events happened at different times and in different orders.  Scandal! 


Not quite.


The gospels were written as ancient biographies, not modern biographies; as any informed scholar will tell you, they must be read in light of that genre.  When Ehrman points out chronological differences between the gospels, such as whether the temple was cleared early in Jesus' ministry (as in John), or during the Passion week (Matthew, Mark and Luke), there is a failure to understand the nature of the genre of ancient biography, which was not always concerned with strict chronology at all (e.g., the biographies written by Tacitus and Plutarch are equally indifferent to chronology). 


John's emphasis was on giving a theological account of Jesus' life, not a chronological account, and was arranged accordingly.  But there is no debate within the Bible as to whether Jesus cleared the temple.  To consider this an "error" or "contradiction" reveals a failure to consider the genre, not to mention the age of the genre.  You simply cannot force modern assumptions about how something should be written, such as history or biography, on an ancient text written by an author who had no such intent in mind.


Now on to his latest headline-grabbing publication, to be released in March, maintaining that the biblical writings were forgeries.  Even scholars who believe that certain biblical authors borrowed existing content, or had an amanuensis (a scribe recording their words) would never use the word "forgery."  That would be unduly sensationalistic and misleading.  Concepts such as plagiarism and intellectual property are modern legal constructs and didn't apply to the ancients. 


That doesn't bother Ehrman, hence the title of his new book:  Forged: Writing in the Name of God - Why the Authors of the Bible Are Not Who We Think They Are.


Ehrman contends that the "forgers" wrote a half-dozen epistles (Ephesians, Colossians, II Thessalonians, I Timothy, II Timothy and Titus) and the Book of Acts, with deliberate forethought, knowing exactly what they were doing.  Further, he contends that other books of the New Testament, such as Mark, John and I Corinthians, had passages added to them decades if not centuries after the fact.  To Ehrman, that makes the Bible a very dishonest book - not simply full of mistakes and untruths, but deceptions and lies.


In truth, few issues have been vetted more thoroughly in biblical scholarship than dating and authorship.  There is nothing new under the sun for Ehrman to unveil, and what discussions he introduces have long been engaged. 


Consider Ephesians.  The letter claims to be written by Paul with many personal notes that the author assumed would be known by his readers; from the earliest days of circulation its authenticity never seemed to be doubted; Pauline features abound, including structure and language; and Ephesians shares similar themes with the other Pauline epistles.  While the authorship of any document can enjoy robust debate, and Ephesians certainly has since the 19th century, the most mainstream of academics such as Markus Barth "encourages the reader to understand the letter on the basis of its Pauline origin."  Or as the renowned New Testament scholar F.F. Bruce, coming down firmly on the side of Pauline authorship, has written, "The man who could write Ephesians must have been the apostle's equal, if not his superior, in mental stature and spiritual insight...Of such a second Paul early Christian history has no knowledge."   


Yet while answering Ehrman is relatively easy, it is still maddening.  It is tedious to be forced to give detailed answers to increasingly fantastical claims simply because of media exposure and gullible readers blinded by academic credentials (Just to save time, I'm already preparing a rebuttal for the book that claims Jesus was one of the knights who say "nee" and real salvation is gained by finding a shrubbery.) 


But beyond being exploitive, Ehrman and others like him are increasingly unconscionable about the effect of their reckless claims.


A friend of mine recently emailed about a friend of his daughter taking Ehrman's New Testament class.  He told me that she is really struggling.  Her last class with Ehrman ended with him saying, "… so that proves Jesus wasn't really born in Bethlehem, so he couldn't be the Messiah."


The girl broke down in tears.


This is an egregious case of a college professor indoctrinating rather than educating, actively seeking to destroy the faith of fragile freshman behind the facade of pseudo-scholarship.


All said, in relation to the nature of his writings, and behavior in the classroom, it is a time for his peers in academia to marginalize Ehrman; for those in the media to quit giving him a platform just because he offers salacious sound bites; and for those of you who are parents to say to the institution he serves, "enough." 


This isn't about academic freedom or appropriately exposing students to alternate views. 


It's about whether Mr. Ehrman has any shame. 


And if not, if those around him will.


James Emery White





John Murawski, "Bible writers intended to deceive, UNC scholar says," Charlotte Observer, February 8, 2011, online at


Markus Barth, Ephesians/Anchor Bible (New York: Doubleday), p. 38.


F.F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Ephesians (Pickering and Inglis), pp. 11-12.


For a detailed study on the authorship of Ephesians, see A. Van Roon, The Authenticity of Ephesians.


Helpful Resources     


Barnett, Paul.  Is the New Testament Reliable?

Bock, Darrell and Daniel B. Wallace, Dethroning Jesus: Exposing             Popular Culture's Quest to Unseat the Biblical Christ.

Bruce, F.F.  The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable?

Little, Paul.  Know Why You Believe.

Strobel, Lee.  A Case for Faith.

White, James Emery.  A Search for the Spiritual.

White, James Emery.  The Da Vinci Question.

White, James Emery.  Can We Trust the Bible?

White, James Emery.  What Do We Know About Jesus?

Witherington, Ben.  The Living Word of God.

Witherington, Ben.  The Gospel Code.

Memo to Bart Ehrman: Blush