- Great swaths of agreement
- Disagreement #1: Are the gospels generally historically reliable?
- Disagreement #2: Did Jesus claim to be divine?
- Disagreement #3: Was Jesus a failed apocalyptic prophet?
- Disagreement #4: Is the Bible inerrant?
Dr. Bart Ehrman, whose books routinely occupy spots on the New York Times’ bestseller list, is probably the most popular scholar of the New Testament and Christian origins in the United States. He is also widely regarded as public enemy #1 by evangelical Christians. A former evangelical and now an agnostic, he regularly engages in public debates with Christians over topics like the reliability of the Bible and the historicity of Jesus’ Resurrection. Consequently, I was surprised at how much I enjoyed Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium. While I obviously disagree with many of his conclusions, there are many reasons to appreciate Ehrman’s book.
Great swaths of agreement
To start with, Ehrman is a funny, engaging, and lucid writer. As someone who is currently slogging his way through several other unremittingly pedantic volumes on the historical Jesus (supposedly written for popular audiences!), I don’t take this ability for granted. Ehrman also does an excellent job of providing historical context for Jesus in terms of 1st century Judaism and the Roman Empire. I’ve picked up most of the information he provides through a variety of different commentaries, Study Bible notes and online lectures. But Ehrman provides one of the most concise and relevant summarizes of Jesus’ historical context that I can recall (p. 103-123), along with a good overview of the trajectory of historical Jesus scholarship from the Enlightment until today (p. 21-32). His emphasis on evidence is also commendable. Rather than dictating scholarly pronouncements from on high, Ehrman tries to provide the reader with the reasons he has for his beliefs.
What surprised me most about Ehrman’s book was the degree to which his beliefs about the historical Jesus agree with those of conservative evangelical Christians. For example, he takes particular aim at the conclusions of the much-hyped Jesus Seminar, whose portrait of Jesus contrasts starkly with both the traditional Christian view and Ehrman’s own. While the Jesus Seminar confidently concludes that “Jesus was not an apocapytic prophet” (Funk, Dewey and The Jesus Seminar, The Gospel According to Jesus, p. 83) and portrays him instead as an anti-religious-establishment teacher of God’s universal love and forgiveness, Ehrman asks pointedly: “If…Jesus is to be understood as a Jewish rabbi who simply taught that everyone should love God and be good to one another, why did the Romans crucify him?” The central thesis of his book is that Jesus was indeed an apocalyptic prophet, one who “thought that he himself would be enthroned [as king of God’s kingdom]… [and] portrayed himself as the herald of this Kingdom..” Ehrman agrees with Christians that Jesus believed that “whoever accepted his message would enter God’s kingdom” and “called himself the Messiah, the King of Israel” (p.217-218). Though Jesus saw himself as fulfilling this role at the end of history through divine intervention rather than through temporal political and military means, it is no wonder that the Roman authorities saw him as a potential threat and crucified him. Ehrman even pokes fun at interpretations of the historical Jesus that are clearly motivated by political and personal preferences rather than by a serious attempt at recovering a historical figure. Ehrman insists that the Jesus we discover through historical study needs to be the Jesus who actually existed, not the Jesus who makes us comfortable or fits into our personal goals, a very important point to which I’ll return at the end of this essay.
Perhaps the most powerful section of Ehrman’s work is his discussion on the teaching of Jesus in Chapters 9 and 10, which reads almost like a sermon. “…Jesus told his followers that ‘whoever wants to save his life will [lose] it and whoever will [lose] his life for my sake and the sake of the good news will save it’ … [Losing] one’s life now does not mean committing suicide. It means giving up one’s own desires and quests for power and prominence for the sake of others. Those who do so will enter into the Kingdom and find true life” (p.149) “For Jesus…what really mattered were the commandments of God that formed, in his opinion, the very heart of the Law, the commandments to love God above all else and to love one’s neighbor as oneself” (p. 166) “Jesus’ insistence on the love for others was particularly manifest in his concern for the destitute of society, those who were impoverished, terminally ill, mentally diseased, and socially outcast. It was people like this who would inherit the Kingdom when the Son of Man arrived” (p. 175) “trust in God -or ‘faith,’ as it is usually translated- is related not just to the future, but to the present as well…Those who anticipate God’s act of judgment and salvation in the future can trust that he will care for them and do what they need now, even in the present age. And what is more, those who live lives of faith and love (i.e., trusting God to bring the Kingdom and loving others as themselves in preparation) have already begun to experience a bit of what that Kingdom will be like” (p. 178-179). The majority of evangelicals would give a hearty ‘Amen’ to Ehrman’s presentation of the beauty and moral potency of Jesus’ teaching.
What, then, are the major differences that separate Ehrman from a traditional Christian understanding of Jesus? There are many, but I’ve tried to categorize the four largest disagreements: the overall reliability of the gospels, Jesus’ claims about his own identity, the concept of Jesus as a failed apocalyptic prophet, and biblical inerrancy. I’ll discuss each of these categories in turn and respond to Ehrman’s views from an evangelical perspective.