Reading Jesus Interrupted – Part 1
Earlier this week I wrote that I would be taking the Ultimate Truth Seeker Challenge made back in 2010 by Luke Muelhauser of commonsenseatheism. Now, I’m halfway through Bart D. Ehrman’s Jesus Interrupted. Ehrman is an agnostic and an author of several popular works about early Christianity and the New Testament. Jesus Interrupted is not a book that sets out to debunk Christianity. Rather, its aim is to present an accessible overview of the scholarly consensus in biblical studies about a number of issues, including Biblical authorship, the reliability of the books found in the Bible and the historical Jesus. Ehrman’s aim, as he explains in the first chapter, is to make known to the churchgoing public what is established and uncontroversial to Biblical scholars. He explains that there is a huge difference between what the public learns from their pastors (at least in the United States) and what academics know about the Bible. This point has particular resonance for me, because it parallels my experience with Christianity. Almost none of this basic information about the Bible was, to my recollection, discussed or explained in the hundreds of sermons I’ve heard or the numerous catechism classes I attended. (I was vaguely aware of the New Testament Apocrypha, which were referred to once and twice in a positive way.)
Ehrman, in the first four chapters, makes three important points, which you can read as a quick summary of the rest of this post.
- We don’t know who wrote most of the books in the New Testament. The Gospels were probably not written by eyewitnesses, and there are books or letters whose authenticity is disputed in the New Testament canon.
- The authors of these books had different opinions about who Jesus was, and did not necessarily agree with each other about his teachings. They interpreted and presented them differently, leading to discrepancies between them.
- These books are not inerrant. There are mistakes, later additions by editors and contradictory claims.
The first point isn’t especially surprising to me, since I’ve already encountered the same argument about the Gospels elsewhere, but it nonetheless clashes with what I was taught to believe. Ehrman writes (in Chapter 3, p. 112):
“Of the twenty-seven books of the New Testament, only eight almost certainly go back to the author whose name they bear: the seven undisputed letters of Paul (Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, and Philemon) and the Revelation of John (although we aren’t sure who this John was).”
The rest (though some are debated) fall into three categories: misattributed writings (anonymous books that were wrongly attributed to certain authors, like Matthew, Mark, Luke and John), homonymous writings (books that were written by someone who shared the name of someone famous, and thus mistaken for that famous person) and forgeries. (Ehrman writes that scholars prefer to use the terms ‘pseudepigraphy’ to avoid the connotations of the word ‘forgery’). Ehrman provides plenty of examples, though doesn’t have a lot of space to give detailed arguments, and given that I’m interested in why scholars think the Gospels were written by non-eyewitnesses decades after Jesus’s death, I’ll probably write a post which summarizes the arguments or links to them soon.
The second point, the different views of the Gospel authors, Paul and others, is very interesting, and I imagine accounts for the many different interpretations of the New Testament and the many debates (on the internet and elsewhere) about what Jesus really taught and so on. To see one example of this, consider what Ehrman writes about Mark (the discussion is much longer than these quotations):
“Jesus’s teaching in Mark is apocalyptic: ‘The time has been fulfilled’ implies that this current evil age, seen on a time line, is almost over. The end is almost within sight. “The Kingdom of God is near” means that God will soon intervene in this age and overthrow its wicked powers and the kingdoms they support, such as Rome, and establish his own kingdom, a kingdom of truth, peace, and justice. […] For Mark’s Jesus, this kingdom is soon to come. As he tells his disciples at one point, ‘Truly, I tell you, some of those standing here will not taste death before they see the Kingdom of God having come in power’ (Mark 9:1); later, he tells them, after describing the cosmic upheavals that would transpire at the end of the age, ‘Truly, I tell you, this generation will not pass away before all these things take place’ (Mark 13:30).” (p. 77-78)
And what Ehrman writes about John:
“The difference between Mark and John is not only that Jesus speaks about himself in John and identifies himself as divine but also that Jesus does not teach what he teaches in Mark, about the coming kingdom of God. The idea that there would be a future kingdom on Earth in which God would rule supreme and all the forces of evil would be destroyed is no part of Jesus’s proclamation in John. […] For many historical critics it makes sense that John, the Gospel that was written last, no longer speaks about the imminent appearance on earth of the Son of Man to sit in judgment on the earth, to usher the utopian kingdom.” (p. 80-81)
This is because, according to Ehrman, by the time John was written, “probably from 90 to 95 CE, that earlier generation had died out and most if not all of the disciples were already dead. That is, they died before the coming of the kingdom”, which results in a reinterpretation of Jesus’s teaching. (p. 81) There are many other examples like this in Jesus Interrupted, such as disagreements between Paul’s teachings and Jesus’s teachings in Matthew, but there’s no need to mention them all. That’s what the book is for.
Erhman also points out that there are numerous contradictions in the New Testament, giving a few examples of each. He suggests reading the Gospels ‘horizontally’, that is together, rather than one after the other, in order for these to become more visible. We can, for example, take Matthew or Luke and read the chapters which narrate Jesus’s birth and compare the differences between them. We can do the same for many of the other stories in the Bible. (I’m in the process of reading the Synoptic Gospels this way, and I can assure you that the impression you get reading this way is entirely different from the harmonized account you hear discussed in Church.) There are other important things Ehrman goes into here, such as the fact that that there are historical inaccuracies and claims made (such as the mass resurrection of the dead during Jesus’s crucifixion, which we’d expect someone to notice and write about) which cannot be corroborated by any historical source, indicating that these claims are merely legendary.
So far, this book has been an interesting read, even though I’m already familiar with some of the information in it. One problem I have, though, is that there aren’t enough references. This is understandable, because this isn’t aimed at an academic audience, but sometimes Ehrman makes claims and doesn’t provide references for them. I was interested in reading more about some of them, and was disappointed that I couldn’t see what he was basing them on or that no further reading material about them was suggested.