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FIRST-PERSON (part 1): Bart Ehrman: A skeptical scholar not to be ignored

EDITOR’S NOTE: Editor’s Note: With books such as Misquoting Jesus and Jesus, Interrupted, New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman has taken his questioning of the authenticity of Scripture straight to the New York Times bestseller list. Ehrman’s background as an evangelical “believer” turned chief skeptic has also made him a favorite of the media. In the first of a five-part series, North American Mission Board apologist Mike Licona introduces Ehrman and puts him in context with other critics who have challenged the Bible in recent decades.

ALPHARETTA, Ga. (BP)–In the 1990s, it was common to see headlines of popular magazines like Newsweek, U.S. News and World Report, and TIME report that scholars had now debunked a number of stories in the Bible. One came to count on seeing these articles appear every Christmas and Easter. I recall hearing the chief editor for one of these magazines being interviewed on National Public Radio. When asked why the magazines frequently ran articles that challenged the traditional view of Jesus, he chuckled and said, “Jesus sells!”

Also in the 1990s, a group of scholars who called themselves the Jesus Seminar became media favorites. Whenever a topic arose concerning Jesus, one could expect to see one or more of their members interviewed. What made Jesus Seminar members so attractive is that they were good at providing sound-bite statements with “shock value” that is so attractive to the media. After a few years, however, the Jesus Seminar lost its appeal. The media must have learned that they were largely out of step with mainstream scholarship which was already quite skeptical. Now they are rarely quoted.

Later, “The Da Vinci Code,” Dan Brown’s best-selling novel (2003), was made into a 2006 movie and once again brought Jesus to the forefront by presenting a conspiracy theory that not only challenged the traditional Jesus but presented a Jesus who was married with children. According to the plot, the doctrine that Jesus is God was non-existent until the fourth century at which time the New Testament literature was selected by a committee that banned and burned the writings of all literature about Jesus — earlier and more reliable literature — that disagreed with their particular and inaccurate view of the real and completely human Jesus. Brown’s book launched countless discussions on these matters. However, it, too, was relatively short-lived when even rather skeptical scholars debunked it.

In 2006, the National Geographic Society introduced us to the “Gospel of Judas,” a “lost gospel” allegedly written by Jesus’ disciple, Judas, who later betrayed him. While the National Geographic Society posited the question of whether this gospel presented a legitimate competing view of Jesus, the consensus of even rather skeptical scholarship concluded that Judas shows signs of being written by a Gnostic during the middle of the second century.

In 2007, Titanic producer James Cameron sponsored amateur archaeologist Simcha Jacobovici and scientist/novelist Charles Pelegrino who claimed to have discovered in Jerusalem the bone boxes that had once contained the skeletal remains of Jesus, his wife Mary Magdalene, and their son, Judah. A documentary and book followed. However, the family tomb proposal failed to receive any support from the academic community, which only offered rebuke for their shoddy work. The theory has been all but forgotten.

Now there’s a new kid on the block and his name is Bart Ehrman. Actually, Ehrman is not so new. He’s a legitimate scholar who has written numerous books on subjects pertaining to the New Testament, the historical Jesus and early Christianity — including best-sellers “Misquoting Jesus” and his most recent book, “Jesus, Interrupted.” His “The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings” is a widely used textbook. In his 50s, Ehrman is a former evangelical who left his faith and is now an agnostic who serves as professor of New Testament and early Christianity at the University of North Carolina (Chapel Hill). Ehrman presently enjoys great attention and favor from the major media, having appeared on NBC’s “Dateline,” “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart,” “The Colbert Report,” CNN, The History Channel, National Geographic, the Discovery Channel, the BBC and NPR. His work has been featured in Time, the Washington Post, the New Yorker and CNN.com.

Although Ehrman’s day likewise will fade, his attacks on traditional Christianity are more dangerous to evangelical Christianity than anything presented by the Jesus Seminar, The Da Vinci Code and other sensational hypotheses. Ehrman presents no original thoughts, but his positions are largely embraced by mainstream skeptical scholarship and he, too, has a talent for taking select academic positions and sharing them in sound-bites that shock readers. He is also an excellent public speaker.

I have had the opportunity to debate Bart Ehrman on two occasions. The first occurred at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City on Feb. 28, 2008 and can be viewed in its entirety at 4truth.net. The second occurred this year at Southern Evangelical Seminary in Charlotte, N.C., on Apr. 2 of this year. A DVD of that debate may be purchased from the SES bookstore. Bart and I have shared two meals and have corresponded numerous times via e-mail. I have found him to be a nice guy and regard him as a friend. However, this week we will find that nice scholars do not always produce good arguments.

Ehrman’s program of skepticism is brittle. He presents positions that lack careful qualifying. As a result, many of his sound-bites are gross overstatements. His historical treatment of Jesus is sometimes radical. His treatment of Jesus’ resurrection betrays a practice of history that is biased to the extent that it can prohibit him from knowing the past.

Problems with Ehrman’s approach such as these are given little attention by the major media. This is understandable, since most of the media do not share Christian beliefs or values and are probably encouraged by Ehrman’s work. This week we will seek to provide some of that missing balance and perspective as we take a look at five of Ehrman’s major claims related to the New Testament Gospels. By the end of the week, we will have discovered that a significant portion of Ehrman’s platform is smoke and mirrors and, as with previous discussions on The Da Vinci Code, we will benefit from becoming a little more educated on the issues upon which Ehrman touches.
Mike Licona is the apologetics coordinator at the North American Mission Board. For a better understanding of today’s world religions and for resources that will help you defend your faith, visit NAMB’s apologetics website at www.4truth.net.

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  • Mike Licona