I’m doing a little reading on Christianity—both history of christianity and theology. So far only read couple of books by Bart Ehrman and also listened to couple of his courses. I really enjoyed Ehrman’s works. I’d recommend to everyone to check out his books. Ehrman takes a historical approach to the subject and strictly sticks with it most of the time. I’m not going to talk about his books in general, but rather point to some stuff in his works that bothered me.
First, sometimes I couldn’t stand the very condescending tone in his works. He repeatedly reminds us that the work of a scholar of his type is extremely hard. And he presents authority as the first step in the argument. I understand that to be a historian of Christianity you have to learn several languages and that takes time. But any reasonable person can evaluate an argument based on textual analysis. You only have to understand some simple logical tricks to evaluate the claims. Many times throughout his works he reminds us that the arguments that he’s giving us are simplified versions of more ‘scholarly’ work that presumably we simple lay folks wouldn’t understand. Sometimes you find yourself smiling when he takes you through an argument with couple of simple tricks and in the ends says ‘See, how tricky that was?’ Maybe that is rigorous and hard work in your discipline but at least don’t insult your readers by implying that they are total idiots. And history books shouldn’t be categorized into ‘scholarly works’ and ‘history for the lay public’. Give us your best argument in all its details. History is not quantum physics.
Think all this arrogance comes from people not getting out of their narrow domains of study—without knowing much about epistemology and methodology in philosophical literature—they (historians) presume that their standards for counting something as true is same as with other disciplines. The ‘evidence’ that some historians think is absolute and beyond doubt would be laughed out in other disciplines. It’s a bit sad. So let’s go through couple of arguments.
Mythicism is “the theory that no historical Jesus worthy of the name existed, that Christianity began with a belief in a spiritual, mythical figure, that the Gospels are essentially allegory and fiction, and that no single identifiable person lay at the root of the Galilean preaching tradition.”1 So when asked about the evidence for historicity of Jesus, Ehrman puts forward Paul saying that he knew brother of Jesus as evidence refuting mythicism. And his reasoning goes like this ‘If Paul knew brother of Jesus, then Jesus must be real.’ Really? It’s not that I disagree with Ehrman. On most things I’m on his side. But he overstates his case and that irritates me a bit.
Let’s see another example concerning Pauline letters:
…almost all scholars are convinced that of the thirteen letters attributed to Paul in the New Testament, seven are indisputably his: Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, and Philemon.
The other six letters differ from these undisputed seven, sometimes in very significant ways, sometimes in minor but telling ways. The differences involve (1) the vocabulary and writing style used (or not used) in the letters: everyone has a distinctive writing style, and it’s possible to determine stylistic characteristics to see if a book actually employs a writer’s style; (2) the theological points of view represented: some of the disputed letters appear to contradict the theology of the undisputed letters; (3) the historical situation that lies behind the writing: some of the letters presuppose a situation that arose long after Paul’s death; and so on.
These other letters—Ephesians, Colossians, 2 Thessalonians, 1 and 2 Timothy, and Titus—appear to have been written by later Christians who were taking Paul’s name in order to propagate their own views, much as happened with Peter in such works as the Gospel of Peter, the Letter of Peter to Philip, and the Apocalypse of Peter. These disputed Pauline letters, then, will be quite useful for us in knowing how Paul was remembered in the years after his death, but they will be of less use in helping us to understand what Paul himself taught.2
When asked how do we know that those seven letters are really Paul’s. The answer is that those seven letters are very similar stylistically, on vocabulary and theological content, and historical context. And because these seven similar letters make up the majority of claimed Pauline letters we assume that they are Paul’s. So the assumption of majority belonging to Paul is just an assumption. But Ehrman describes these as ‘undisputed’ letters of Paul. I don’t understand why he uses this kind of strong language: undisputed, absolutely, certain.
But then I watched the following video and now of the opinion that I’m being a pedant in my criticisms of Ehrman.
Christian scholars of history of Christianity are on another level of silliness. All the people sitting on that panel except Ehrman are Christians. And their whole scholarship starts with the assumption that the bible is error free!
Inerrancy is no use without infallibility. Furthermore, one person being infallible (the pope or some other authority) doesn’t solve the problem—everyone should be infallible in order not to introduce errors into interpretations of scriptures. These people don’t deserve criticism beyond pointing out to them their assumption. For a great discussion of fallibilism check out this piece by David Deutsch.
1. Earl Doherty, Jesus: Neither God nor Man: The Case for a Mythical Jesus
2. Bart Ehrman, Peter, Paul & Mary Magdalene