Bart Ehrman

The Good

Bart Ehrman has the indubitable honor of being one of the best selling authors in Biblical studies today.  Not bad for an atheist. His visage has become as ubiquitous as Elaine Pagels', N. T. Wright's, and Bishop Spong's in the Discovery-Channel-ish media circuit. His celebrity is not undeserved. Not only is he quite prolific, he also happens to be a world-class expert textual critic whose books are a useful contribution to both the scholarly and the popular literature on the New Testament and early Christianity. His Orthodox Corruption of Scripture, for example, is one of the best monographs available on the subject of redaction and textual variants in the Bible. It is a great overview of the scribal trajectories that resulted in our modern translations. Other noteworthy works in his catalog include (though a bit more on the pop side) Lost Christianities and Forged.  

The not-so Bad

Ehrman is a bit of an anomaly. He's a thorn on the side of conservative evangelicals, not only because he is a successful yet openly atheist  New Testament scholar, which I suspect lays eggs under their skin, but also because he pulls no punches when pointing out the textual sleight of hand they so often use to try give their apologetic spins an artificial sheen of plausability.  Ehrman's books have been like live grenades dropped directly into their trenches, blowing their vapid apologetic arguments to smithereens. While it is kind of fashionable these days for some of the more strident peanut-gallery mythicists to malign Ehrman at every turn, in reaction (I guess) to his terrible Did Jesus Exist? book (which truly was a dud), that's not really fair. He deserves a little respect and credit for what he's good at.

It's just that what he is good at is not really being a particularly incisive or a probing scholar. Ehrman's strength is not original thought or insight.  He is actually quite stodgy in his approach to New Testament studies. His talent is that of a professor, a teacher, a cataloguer, a reporter, more than any kind of investigative "scholar" per çe. He can be seen as radical or controversial only in comparison to a fundamentalist mindset, which is ironic, because although he's seen as an arch-heretic by neo-apologists all he's really doing is reviewing whatever Lightfoot, Schweitzer, Bultmann, Harnack, or Albright wrote about any given pericope, and then relaying some abbreviated synopsis of that as the mainstream consensus opinion to his readers. This is especially true of his general-audience (i.e., pop) works. Take his Lost Christianities, for example: the idea that the earliest Christianity was a variegated, heterogenous thing may be a radical thing for apologistorians to hear, but he's not saying anything new at all. He is merely re-presenting Walter Bauer's groundbreaking Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity, written in 1934. All Ehrman is doing, in other words, in 2014, is dragging evangelical scholars kicking and screaming into the twentieth century. This is a good thing, certainly, but Ehrman seldom goes into any of the sausage-making in any sort of detail. He plays it safe, often content to spout a 'mainstream opinion', as a singe datum, without parsing or referencing the academic discourse that led to it.  

One recent example from my own experience will suffice to show how I feel about Ehrman: I was re-reading Joseph Tyson's book on Marcion and Acts the other night. At one point, the thought flashed through my mind that I should look up what Ehrman said about Marcion, so I did. I looked for everything that he had said about Marcion in every book of his that I have (five, I think). I was really disappointed. It turns out that when he mentions Marcion at all, he just repeats the traditional view (via Tertullian) that Marcion was 'an arch-heretic who cut up the Gospel of Luke.' There's not even a footnote to any of the work of scholars like John Knox, or Joe Tyson, or Jason BeDuhn, or Joseph Hoffman, who have all argued that it is not as simple as that. As someone who is somewhat familiar with this scholarship, Ehrman's omission disturbs me. He is the most popular author in the field, and he doesn't seem to know (or is he intentionally glossing it over?) of this scholarship. My worry in this is that his facile (either uninformed or lazy) encapsulation of something which is decidedly more nuanced than he realizes will imprint in his readers the idea that this 'mainstream' view should be the normative one by default. He is Bart Ehrman, after all. But I think that his ambition as a pop writer exceeds his specialty as a scholar. If you want a decent introductory text-book overview of historical Jesus scholarship, Ehrman is a really good choice, but if you want to read something more substantive his writing is way too limiting for being so general and homogenous, so pasteurized.

The Bad

Freeman Dyson once remarked that a good scientist is a person with original ideas while a good engineer is a person who makes a design that works with as few original ideas as possible. Because of this distinction, there are no prima donnas in engineering. By this definition, Bart Ehrman is definitely more engineer than scientist, and yet he conducts himself like a prima donna, which is a very odd thing to witness.

Bart's albatross necktie is Did Jesus Exist?, a book that is frustrating in that it fails to do what is implicit in its very title, namely to engage scholarly mythicist arguments. It doesn't, but that's just the first of its many flaws. More than frustrating, the book is infuriating in that it paints all mythicism with the same single broad brush stroke as the malevolent rambling of grudging atheists and conspiracy-theory nutjobs, and nothing more. 

When Richard Carrier, in his review of the book, took Ehrman to task on its failure to address the best mythicist arguments and on its copious and often sophomoric errors, Ehrman took offense at Carrier's irreverent yet valid (and accurate) criticism.  Instead of seeing Carrier's review as an honest probing critique from a peer who is pointing out real errors and oversights, Ehrman reacted by trying to cover his ass with respect to his misstatements, which made matters worse. When Carrier pointed out that Ehrman was being dishonest in his dismissal of Carrier's critique, Ehrman simply said Carrier was being mean, and then haughtily picked up the ball and walked off the field, like a butt-hurt diva.   I find his condescending refusal to concede error ... well ... lame.

For me, a good rule of thumb is that anyone who is above correction is not above mockery. Luckily, I find Ehrman's other general works, stodgy and innocuous and generic as they usually are, useful enough to take it a little easy on the guy. I get why he can be the butt of jokes, though.

It's like in high school, when a bunch of us collectively physically lifted and moved the thin-skinned smug class president's little Volkswagen Beetle onto the middle of the football field just because he was a dick.

I don't quite condone it, but I get why it happens.

Selected Bibliography:

  • Did Jesus Exist? (2013)
    — This book was a personal letdown. I was looking forward to a good historicist case. This is not it. This is instead a disappointing exercise in picking low-lying fruit, really. It fails at the very task it purportedly takes on, namely to engage and examine mythicist arguments. (For more on this book, read my review.)

    Rating: ★½☆☆☆

  • Bart Ehrman and the Quest of the Historical Jesus of Nazareth (2013)
    — An anthology of critical responses to Ehrman's Did Jesus Exist? by several of those  scholars whom he mischaracterizes or maligns in it.

    Rating: ★★★★☆


  1. This puts ehrman in a much needed new light.

  2. I wonder whether this comes from arguing so much with evangelicals. Ehrman knows every argument that the apologists are going to make and he has them in mind while writing his books so he does an excellent job of equipping his readers to respond to them. However, his views are so rarely attacked from other directions that he has never had to develop responses to them. It was certainly my impression of Did Jesus Exist? that Ehrman had no idea what the counterarguments might be.

  3. I used to have a lot of respect for Dr. Bart Ehrman until his book "Did Jesus Exist" (DJE), which really was a "hack job" like Dr. Price and many other have said.

    Here's Dr. Ehrman admitting he and most New Testament scholars know nothing about mythicism:

    "Writing Did Jesus Exist was an interesting task. For one thing, before writing the book, like most New Testament scholars, I knew almost nothing about the mythicist movement."

    - Dr. Bart Ehrman

    "Bart Ehrman also confesses on page two in his book, "Did Jesus Exist?," that for 30 years he never even thought to consider to question the existence of Jesus as real historical character because it was a question that he "did not take seriously."

    The quotes above are from the link below:

    Religion and the Ph.D.: A Brief History

    Some of the most egregious and sloppy scholarship I've ever seen can be found in Ehrman's DJE. Ehrman ruined his own credibility with that book and here's Ehrman getting caught red-handed:

    The phallic ‘Savior of the World’ hidden in the Vatican

    Richard Carrier caught Bart Ehrman in a lie

    Bart Ehrman caught in libel and lies?

    Bart Ehrman errs again – this time about virgin births

    1. yes, the DJE? sucks, as I said above, but his other work is still useful ... I think Vinny may be right in his assesment.

    2. After reading Misquoting Jesus, I was certainly not qualified to do textual criticism. However, I did find that I was generally capable of following discussions about textual criticism, asking intelligent questions, and distinguishing the people who knew what they were talking about from those who were blowing smoke. I would say that all of Ehrman's books prior to DJE were similarly useful. I've argued with a lot of internet apologists and Ehrman never left me hanging.

  4. Notice how Ehrman gets as much negative space here as D.M. "Aestrotheology" Murdock. Apparently, to hold that the Gospels or Epistles might not have been fictions based in a set of myths (the dying-and-rising god) that scholars in comparative religion almost all see have not really being what they were thought to be by Frazer et al. - is on the same level as asserting, not just that the Christ story was a fiction based on a mythical sun god, but a mythical sun god who was actually some sort of technologically advanced homonid, perhaps from beyond the stars.

  5. I don't see how a word count is particularly relevant. I would expect a much longer discussion of Ehrman's shortcomings simply because it is much harder to demonstrate the shortcomings in a good scholar's arguments.


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