Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The New Testament (Ehrman)

The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings
by Bart D. Ehrman (OUP)

This book is quite well written and closely argued, but as an introduction to the subject matter it fails on at least one important level: Unlike, say, John Drane's "Introduction to the New Testament", it does not introduce us to a representative sample of scholarly thought. Instead it mainly argues the case for Ehrman's own position, and in the process it takes for granted certain assumptions that are more widely contested than he seems willing to admit. In other words, there is a tendency to cite opinions that other equally reputable scholars would contest as though they were established fact.

Another difficulty with using this book as an introduction to the subject is that Ehrman does not give the reader enough assistance in investigating his influences and antecedents. Thus he makes some quite radical assertions (e.g. challenging the traditional view that the oral traditions of pre-literate societies tend to be transmitted reliably) without the conventional footnotes quoting authorities and sources. Apart from some general further reading suggestions at the end of chapters, Ehrman's assertions along the lines that "recent research has shown" or "it is now accepted" have to be taken on his say-so alone.

Actually, Ehrman's antecedents are fairly obvious to anyone who has read theology - he continues the tradition of 19th century liberals like Wrede (and their 20th century disciples like Bultmann) who drew a sharp distinction between (i) the Jesus of history and (ii) the Christ of the Church's faith, and assumes that the Bible can only inform us about the latter. And yet the impressive work of N.T. (Tom) Wright, founder of the so-called "Third Quest for the Historical Jesus" raises at very least the possibility (and for many people the near-certainty) that the supposed dichotomy between Jesus and the Christ results from a flaw in post-Enlightenment intellectual methodologies (the very flaw against which post-modernity is a dangerous over-reaction).

A further problem is that Ehrman goes a stage beyond Reimarus, Wrede and so on in his assumptions that first century Christian thought was at least as heterodox as we know second century thought to have been, that the ascendancy of the orthodox "brand" of Christianity was simply by a process of natural selection, and that generations of "proto-orthodox" NT redactors constantly and consciously changed and added to the texts as they went along - their intention being to filter out any ideas that seemed to challenge their prejudices and to provide ammunition in the fight against "heresy". This position is not systematically spelled out in the book under review (for that, see one of Ehrman's other books, "The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture"), but it needs stating here because these a prioris inform his whole approach to the subject.

This is more radical than it may sound, because it would imply that the four canonical Gospels are not necessarily any more authoritative as insights into the historical Jesus than the Gnostic and other apocryphal writings of the second century such as the "Gospel of Thomas". In fact, the very starting point for Ehrman's main discourse is the non-uniqueness of the traditionally-supposed key points of Jesus' life: He begins by recounting the miraculous birth, life, death and resurrection of a man the readers is allowed to assume is Jesus, but then (surprise!) turns out to be Appollonius of Tyana, a mythical miracle worker whose exploits are chronicled in the "histories" of Philostratus.

Ehrman's book has many good points. Its discussion of Markan priority is the most lucid I have read, and its assessment of the historical background to each of the biblical Gospels is also outstanding. My problems with the book arise from its shuttered perspective. In the context of a more open discussion, the author could have argued his own opinions just as coherently and with less danger of giving the inexperienced student a one-sided view of the issues.

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