Updated: Oct 14, 2020
By Bart D. Ehrman
Published in 2009, this is an excellent book of New Testament scholarship. Ehrman grew up in the Christian Church and like so many of us, he recalls those soothing days of church attendance in childhood. He was a traditionally trained Bible College then Mainstream Protestant Seminary graduate, but along the way he fell in love with the questions and the processes of discovery and critical thinking, thus resetting his course away from ministry to scholarship, writing and teaching; eventually earning a PhD in biblical scholarship. He has authored over 20 books and is a Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.
For me, Ehrman's life is important to place in context as in many ways this was my own pathway, though I detoured earlier than Ehrman and headed down the pathway of being a psychologist where I could "minister" to others while also pursuing a life of the mind as a professor. But Ehrman knows both sides of the street, having close ties to the church as well as a vast depth of scholarship. He offers a sympathetic yet rigorous view of New Testament studies.
It is impossible to address the many concerns raised by the historical-critical approach to religious scholarship for the New Testament. Suffice it to say that the 27 books of the New Testament that we recognize today, were not always the same books as recognized by others in various places and times. The books that eventually made up the New Testament were written 30 to 100 years after the death of Jesus. There have been many other gospels and epistles written. The process of authorizing which of the many gospels and epistles that made it into the official canon took another 300 to 400 years and was completed by different groups at different times. Some groups still today recognize a somewhat different set of books as being in the cannon of scripture. Scriptural discoveries such as the Dead Sea Scrolls are and will continue to be made. Scholarship is never final or closed.
Ehrman discusses authorship and how authorship may or may not be verified from a scholarly perspective. In reviewing these debates, he offers the insight that the order of the books was decided upon by councils of men who were trying to tell the best story. The books were not authored or discovered in a set order. Most books were likely used by local groups of early Christians and many copies made by scribes of the most popular of these. However, scholars mainly agree the earliest gospel in the New Testament was likely the book of Mark and the book of Acts, believed to be written by the same author (then heavily copied from by the writers of Matthew and Luke). No one knows who the actual writers of most books were. The authors of the four traditional gospels of the life of Jesus are unknown but were given the names of known apostles by later people. It is almost impossible that the apostles Matthew, Mark, Luke and John wrote any of the New Testament as they came from Galilee a working class Aramaic speaking area in what is now northern Israel. The four gospels were written in high class Greek and there were very few pathways for fishermen and laborers from the countryside to have learned high Greek. Of course oral traditions may have been shared by apostles and were later written down as best as possible by other early Christians.
Ehrman also reviews many of the most well studied textual contradictions. For example, how the birth, death and resurrection stories of Jesus differ in significant detail and in some places empirically contradict one another. But don't take Ehman's word or that of scholars alone, one can verify dozen's of important contradictions easily oneself by simply writing out side by side (horizontal) these stories as told in each gospel. It is a very eye opening experiment and this same method can also be used elsewhere in textual analyses. Though it may be hard to believe, Ehrman shows that Jesus may have never claimed he, himself was divine as reported in any of the gospels. He used Son of Man most often in referring to himself and was sentenced to death for refusing to deny that he was the "king of the Jews." New Testament authors or scribes note others describing Jesus as “the Son of God.” However, historically for a Jew in the time of Jesus “Son of God” typically meant a human being made in God’s image and devoted to the God of Jewish belief.
Ehrman skillfully argues that to understand Jesus, we must also understand the times he lived in, the culture and history surrounding his life as well as that of the early church. He argues why understanding Jesus as a Jew is necessary to a fuller more realistic understanding of Jesus and his teachings.
Furthermore, the life and writings of Paul are covered in some depth in this book with several of the thirteen Pauline books being questioned as authentic by scholars. One powerful example is First and Second Peter, both of which are not believed to have been written by Paul and certainly not by Peter. So who wrote them? We do not know.
For those approaching this book with a critical-historical framework in mind, there are fascinating and important insights here. For those who are use to a purely devotional reading of the bible, accepting authenticity upon personal faith and tradition, this and similar scholarly works may be frustrating, confusing, disheartening or liberating and enriching depending on the person; but it is almost assured you will at least wonder about the world in some different ways after considering such material. Ehrman argues that of course faith is possible even with the many historical scholarly challenges. Like Kierkegaard, faith may be a leap of personal conviction and meaning and faith always has a subjective experiential quality. The benefits to me of combining the historical-critical method with faith are in how faith may become both a source of humility and love as opposed to judgement or fear. For me, this is like bread and butter. It is a staple of my way of life and beliefs, to follow evidence where it may lead and to consider sincerely and perpetually the different approaches to understanding and faith. This helps me be more self aware and respectful of other people and other faiths. Finally, let me add that Ehrman is always a respectful and clear writer, making what may be difficult reading into a joy.